What’s in an office? Furniture, a favourite mug, pictures of ones’ family, a pile of unanswered correspondence, a stack of marking and a shelf or two of books? Some of us are lucky enough at BU to have our own office, others have to share, while others prefer to work at home on a corner of the dining room table or in a room the more pretentious of us call a study. Besides my office I have a work room at home too. It’s in the roof and you can hear the rain on the skylight, a sound I find delightful and elemental – nature’s music. We justify these spaces by the need to ‘think’ and that creative thoughts need peace and quiet or that we need our academic possessions around us. Maybe this is all true, but I very rarely refer to the books on my shelves these days, since it quicker now to look online and most of my academic library is stored on my hard drive. Yes I value the calm, the routine of going to my office, the isolation from distraction it provides but it is exactly that, isolating.
I have worked in shared offices, in fact I wrote my PhD and a book more recently in one and have shared offices at times throughout my academic career. The power of concentration overcomes most distractions, although I myself am a distraction to others, muttering to myself as I write, re-casting sentences by reading them out loud, getting up to pace and then sit down to write some more. But to be office-less is perhaps a step further? I supervise students from the US and I am always surprised when a deadline approaches and they reply ‘off to the Starbucks to work’. And work they do deliver, with music in their ears, coffee to hand, in the middle of the bustle of daily life; I am not sure I could do this?
But in truth what is actually stopping me from trying? You see people commuting on the train, working hard, making me feel guilty as I idly stare out of the window. How can they work in such conditions? I often rationalise it unfairly by saying ‘well they are not doing anything creative or that requires deep thought’, but this is just nonsense. In truth you can work anywhere given a focus. I just prefer to run to the isolation of my office and as a result I am less productive and perhaps more isolated.
The recurrent theme here is isolation; your office isolates you from the world around, a defence mechanism to keep out the hassle and the distractions, but there is a down side. Over the last year or so in my current role I have tried to find ways of keeping in daily contact with academics throughout BU to be a conduit for their concerns and to listen to their needs. In truth, I am always interested in and keen to talk about research – my own if anyone will listen, but chiefly other peoples if they are prepared to tell. So this Wednesday I am about to abandon my office for a month – an office sabbatical if you like – as an experiment into being office-less and to try to enhance my own level of engagement. Wherever possible my meetings have been switched out of the Office of the Vice Chancellor and between times I will hang out and try to work in the coffee shops and open access spaces across both campuses. The purpose, well to see what it is like to be office-less for a start, to fight the isolation provided by ones office and ultimately to see if it enhances my accessibility to the people I represent – the academics that make our University strong. So when you see me about, huddled in the corner of the coffee shop, feel free to stop and talk!