The Place where we Work

Standing Desk

So I’ve been in the new job for four months, and I’m in a place to look back and reflect. This is the first post, and is about the place where I work, and what that might tell me about how we interact with the spaces we work.

  1. I am so lucky. I am in the perfect job for me right now. I work with awesome people, I believe in the vision of the institution, and we can afford to do good work. After years of working in great teams who were being cut back; or doing good work in the wrong job; or feeling there was a disconnect between the fantastic things happening at the coal face and the strategy happening at senior levels… This is such a luxury, and I’m so happy about it.
  2. I am so lucky. I work in a beautiful, highIMG_1246-ceilinged, diamond lead-paned mullioned windowed, afternoon sun-trap of a Victorian building. I look out over Parkville and the setting sun; or I look up from my computer to a Gloria Petyarre Bush Medicine painting. Beauty is very important to me, so being able to work in a beautiful place inspires, encourages and delights me every day.
  3. I am so lucky. I have a standing desk, enough light, a computer that works, access to fresh air, a door I can shut when I need the quiet. Being well at work means I can get on and do my work, not negotiate my way around a whole load of small that aren’t quite right first. I listen to music to inspire me, not to block out other people. I can benefit from daylight and fresh air, from quiet and privacy, from a stretch, while being at my desk. That’s pretty amazing.

So, the first three things I reflect on demonstrate how awful so much work is, especially in the modern university. I’ve worked in universities in the UK and Australia for a decade now. I worked in Cambridge, in Oxford, in Melbourne; in new, Victorian and ancient universities; I worked in admin, and as an academic.

When I was a casual tutor, I was doing really well when I could get access to a computer, a phone and a desk. Some places I was able to put a pretty poster up on the wall, some I wasn’t. When I was professional staff, I couldn’t believe that they gave me a desk just for turning up on the first day. But I often worked in open-plan offices, with nothing on the walls, often decorated in white and grey. I often brought in a pot plant, some cut flowers, a pretty tea cup, some postcards to brighten up my pin board, and it helped.

And yes, I have an awesome office, but so do many other people. They stop by and say ‘You’re office is so warm and welcoming!’ They have the same walls and windows, and they could afford to make their offices places of beauty, but they don’t. 

In the last year I was in Academic Skills, I had a standing desk and that was awesome. In the begining I was the only person standing up. By the time I left the team, there were 4 people standing up, and a number of others considering it. When I arrived in the new job, it was the first thing I requested. (And they are an investment, but much less than a new computer. This is the desk I ordered.)

It’s harder to improve your team, because a team and a senior management is made up of other people. The first thing you learn in therapy is that you aren’t responsible for other people’s thoughts, feelings or intentions. You can contribute to your workplace by being the team player you want to be… but there’s no promise that anyone else will play along. And because the global university sector has been under so much pressure for so long, universities are often disfunctional places to work. You can avoid adding to the disfunction, but you also often have to spend a lot of time working to minimise other people’s bullshit. But I was really aware how much difference a good manager could make, even just in their little area. Now I’m a manager, I’m trying to do the same.

So for all of you still out there in the grey corridors, battling for some quiet, I hear you. For all you ‘casual’ academics without a desk or a printer, I hear you. For all you in teams run by bullies or hit by yet more restructuring, I hear you. 

Everyone who has a desk though, put some flowers on it. Everyone who has a budget, get some decent lamps and some standing desks. Everyone who has a team, treat them with kindness. 

I’m not going to pretend that there are happy jobs at the end of every higher education rainbow, but I do know that my decade of practicing ‘being as happy as possible under the circumstances’ means I’m now in a position to be very happy indeed when the circumstances improved. 


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