By Anonymous PGR
On returning to University this semester myself and my PGR colleagues were informed that, due to space shortages across the Department, the post-graduate offices in our school were going to be ‘re-utilised’ by the ‘space management committee’. We were informed that we’d all be moved to an open plan, hot-desking office. We had expected both a move and a reduction in office space, but not so abruptly – with only two weeks’ notice. The fact we hadn’t been consulted and the suggestion we would hot-desk were big disappointments. The news was emailed to us and couched in management speak as an ‘opportunity’, as though this could automatically transform our grievances and enable everybody to look on the bright side. For some this change came at the very end of their writing-up period, and required that they think about moving office when they simply didn’t have the time or head space.
Four of us sent a collective email from our (small) office to the manager concerned and copied in our supervisors. We pointed out, collectively and individually, what we found unacceptable and why. Amongst other things we felt it should not be the responsibility of individual students to find new ‘space’ for their books, and confidential data. Very little it seemed had been considered from the perspective of the post-graduate community. Some of our supervisors lent their support and aired their concerns regarding the impact on both our work and our wellbeing. They also questioned what the University was providing in terms of value for money if it could not guarantee desks. A good question. Some of us looked up the level of provision our funders recommended to Universities, which gave us a baseline of what to ask for. However, we did so on behalf of everybody regardless of the funding stream. Acting collectively was hugely beneficial. I had personally forgotten the recommendations regarding PGR provision, luckily I have more vigilant colleagues. Our general feeling was, if they’re going to take away what we value, then we might as well make our feelings known. What’s the worst that could happen? They could take our offices and make us hot-desk, which was probably going to happen anyway, so we didn’t have much to lose.
Perhaps the most disheartening part of the move, apart from feeling we’d been overlooked as less valuable members of the faculty, was the despondency we encountered among our peers in the PGR community and wider school. I heard a lot of ‘there’s no point objecting as this has already happened in another University/Faculty/School, so we can’t really complain’. Or ‘I know your situation seems bad but you should see where we have to work’. It reminded me of working in a Local Authority, when staff complained of onerous work-loads and were told by managers ‘but it’s not as bad here as it is in other departments’, reminding us that ‘things can always get worse’ as though we should all somehow aspire to poorer conditions. I had slightly more sympathy with this argument when it was utilised where Local Authority funding has been cut to the bone. However, not so much when we’re talking about a prestigious University that charges substantial fees. I cannot ‘feel bad’ about the budgetary challenges and time pressures in quite the same way. This narrative suggests we should not dare aim for more than the least granted to others, that it isn’t right to complain about conditions which had already deteriorated elsewhere, as though to do so insults those in already reduced circumstances. The pervasiveness of this attitude suggests not only that collectivities have reduced, but that we are now perversely guilty about representing our own and other’s interests. Perhaps this kind of hopelessness regarding the fruits of protest betrays an unwillingness to take a risk in asking for better conditions, in case you find out how under-valued you really are. I found myself relating to this ‘no point’ narrative as a ‘race to the bottom’, frequently used to describe the globalising processes of de-regulation in the neo-liberal economy, connected to lower wages and working conditions. With this comes a sense of inevitability, that those who complain about change simply aren’t moving with the times.
As Standing notes, hot-desking ‘is depersonalising the office, since it is no longer “my office”’ (2011:91). As such, it has become an epitome of neo-liberal subjectivity, in that developing attachments to space and place is archaic, and that we should all be willing to work in less personal conditions, develop ‘transferable skills’ and show a willingness to uproot and move on at a moment’s notice. In Society Under Siege Bauman observed a ‘flexible identity, a constant readiness to change and the ability to change at short notice, and an absence of commitments…appear to be the least risky of conceivable life strategies’ (2002:36). There is a conflict in seeking to make a name for yourself as an individual, whilst not expressing your individuality. We are required it seems to get along by being the kind of person who demonstrates that they ‘don’t mind’, and can perform in any situation.
In response to our individual and collective complaints, a meeting with management was brought forward so we could air our views and request adaptations to the new office. Prior to this everything had been communicated via email, which denied the possibility of those involved to become real to one another, rather than an interplay of grievances enacted in writing. Following our written complaints and attendance at meetings, several things improved. It was agreed there would be static desks for those that want them, and the offices will be refurbished to provide better storage and sound proofing. Had we not come together to object, some of these things may not have happened. Yes, in the scheme of things being moved to open-plan in 2017 is a small complaint. Things will always be worse for somebody, somewhere. This should not prevent resistance to circumstances you do not find acceptable. It was not difficult for us to find peers and senior colleagues willing to lend support, and in this instance at least it improved our own and others’ conditions, and helped build relationships between PGRs and administrative staff in the department. Working open plan is tough when your work involves the creativity of deep thinking and writing, and we all have different ways of working and coping. Overall, a lot of people seem to be opting out of using the office. Even sitting next to someone quietly can feel crowded when you need to be in your own headspace. However, our small victories were important to us, and the narrative of hopelessness the situation revealed is a bigger problem which is worth being conscious of.
Bauman,Z (2002). Society Under Siege. Cambridge: Polity.
Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat, the new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury.