Developing Leadership Capacity Conference (DLCC)

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The Developing Leadership Capacity Conference (DLCC) is returning to UWE for its 10th anniversary. The conference will be hosted by Bristol Leadership and Change Centre (BLCC) and the Bristol Business Engagement Centre (BBEC) in our new Business School on the 12th and 13th July 2018. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary the topic of leadership learning seems to be as important as ever with an increased level of research interest and increased levels of investment. This popularity of leadership learning and development has been accompanied by a focus on innovative and creative methods. We wish to explore some of these methods as part of the conference and hence invite contributions on leadership learning, development and education, with a particular focus on innovation and creativity. These creative and innovative approaches further appear to resonate with increased interest in critical issues within leadership studies more widely. For example, we are seeing research into issues of gender, identity, power and resistance and a more aesthetic appreciation of leadership. The methodologies used for learning leadership are also developing outside the mainstream with increased calls for more reflexive and democratic processes of learning. Whilst we are hoping to explore these innovative, creative and critical issues further, the conference will also welcome any other discussion of leadership learning, development and education.

We already have two keynote speakers how have agree to present at the conference – Professor Paul Hibbert (St Andrew’s University) and Professor Carole Elliott (Roehampton University). They will be discussing innovative approaches to leadership and organizational learning from a reflexive standpoint and based on a large scale research project on women leaders respectively. We hope that you will join us in sharing your experiences, practices and research on leadership and organizational learning and development. 500 word abstract submissions are needed by the 16th March 2018. Contact Dr Gareth Edwards ( or Dr Doris Schedlitzki ( for further details or watch out for our website which will go live soon!

Katie Beavan appointed Research Fellow at Harvard University. 

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We recently received some exciting and pleasing news concerning one of our part-time doctoral students, Katie Beavan. She has been appointed as a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Management, Katie will be joining the Women’s Public Policy Program (WAPPP), a research centre focused on closing global gender gaps in economic opportunity, political participation, health and education.

Katie’s doctoral research is focused on how to undo gender in 24/7 hyper-masculine cultures, and create working environments that support gender parity at all levels, including the very top of the organization. Her work explores resistance to the dominant culture(s) and the development of working practices to disrupt the status quo. She has a long career of working in global financial services. Her deep practitioner experience in cultural change, employee engagement, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion inform her research.

Katie works with interdisciplinary methods of inquiry, including poetics, autobiographical and auto/ethnographic writing and feminist reflexivity. She is interested in evoking critical and ethical responses in organizational leaders, creating emotional motivation for change. Her work is based within the Bristol Leadership & Change Centre and she’s supervised by Professor Peter Case and Dr Margaret Page.

Beyond Unsustainable Leadership

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By Dr Neil Sutherland.


What do we think of when we hear the term ‘Sustainable Leadership’? Perhaps you picture a lush green planet, environmentally friendly practices and cutting-edge products. Perhaps you focus on organisational practices that lead to social good and just outcomes that end power imbalances across society. Perhaps you see it as another managerial buzzword. Indeed, the term is one that is commonly referred to but rarely defined or understood, which has led to a particularly disappointing advancement of sustainability outcomes in recent years.

Concerned with this lack of clarity, Dr Neil Sutherland, Jem Bendell and Richard Little have been working on a Special Issue of the ‘Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal’ to advance thinking about leadership, sustainability and wellbeing. They begin by framing Sustainable Leadership as an ethical process that “has the intention and effect of helping groups of people address shared dilemmas in significant ways”. From here, they are able to offer advice on how organisations may go about re-thinking leadership practice in order to solve contemporary issues.

Central to their work is challenging the idea that leadership is just the responsibility of one heroic and seemingly-superhuman individual. They follow other critical scholars to suggest that, in fact, this reliance on the ‘power of one’ may have been the root cause of unethical and unsustainable practices within the last decades. We do not have to look far to see how this is playing out on our current stage: narcissistic individuals in positions of power who seem more concerned with personal gain than societal good. In other situations, the desire for organisations to pin all of their hopes and dreams on one person may leave that individual wracked with guilt and anxiety when they find themselves incapable of making wide-scale changes alone. For many reasons then, it is clear that this individualistic conception of leadership is not serving us, our organisations or the planet.

But what is an alternative to the call for bigger and bolder individual leaders? The answer, Sutherland, Bendell and Little suggest, is to “shift attention from formal leaders and their influence on followers to the relational processes that produce leadership in a group, organisation or system” (Ospina and Foldy, 2015: 492). Essentially: we need to focus on building collective leadership capacity rather than individual. In doing so, our authors suggest, we can create more efficacious forms of leadership where discussion and deliberation are considered of utmost importance, as every person takes on a level of accountability and responsibility for sustainability practices – whether this be environmental, social or ethical. In reconsidering leadership as something that an organisation collectively does, we will be more able to tackle complex contemporary issues and restore, reform or revolutionise how sustainability is approached.

This move toward more distributed and collective forms of leadership has been gaining increasing attention in recent years, and something that Neil Sutherland has published on previously. Oddly, it is simultaneously a blindingly obvious and simple idea, yet one that it surprisingly difficult to fully grasp in practice. Indeed, adopting a more collective and less centralised approach requires an element of humility on the part of all organisational members, as well as the ability to share ideas and information, and to avoid seeking to dominate others. For some this sounds like a step too far toward an unrealistic utopia, but modern-day research suggests that with just a small tweak to our taken-for-granted assumptions about the hierarchical nature of humanity, we may be able to construct a new generation of organisations that aren’t precariously reliant on sole individuals. 

The Special Issue on ‘Leadership, Sustainability and Well-being’ will be available from September. Please visit for further details.

ISBE Forum: Adding the relevance to rigorous business research.

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In association with SAMS (Society for the Advancement of Management Studies)

ISBE Forum

Wednesday 13 September 2017

0930 – 1600
The Studio, Leeds

To register for this free event please click here.

What is interesting about entrepreneurship research?

What is relevant in entrepreneurship research?

What does rigour and relevance mean to different users of academic research?

This one day event in Leeds, organised by The Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies at Leeds University Business School in association with the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE), will bring together senior policy makers, business owners, and academics from all career stages, to discuss these questions.

Aims of the day include: to develop collaborative best practice dissemination guidelines for both academics and practitioners, and to facilitate opportunities to build valuable relationships for future impact cases.


9.30 – 10.00: Registration and tea/coffee
10.00 – 10.15: Welcome
10.15 – 12.00 Panel discussion: Perspectives on rigour-relevance of academic research
Panel members: Dr David Higgins (University of Liverpool); Prof. Kiran Trehan (University of Birmingham); Philip Salter (Direct, The Entrepreneurs Network and Secretary for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Entrepreneurship); Anthony Moody (Deputy Director of Enterprise Analysis, BEIS); Joe Clease (Senior Economist, BEIS); Jonathan Seaton (Managing Director, Twinkl Ltd.)
12.00 – 13.00: Lunch and networking
13.00 – 14.30 Interdisciplinary workshops. Example topics:
·      What is interesting about entrepreneurship research?
·      What is relevant in entrepreneurship research?
14.30 – 15.00: Tea/coffee break and networking
15.00 – 16.00: Summary of best practice guidelines, Q&A, and next steps

For further information on the event please contact Isla Kapasi at


Who am I? Leadership seen through the lens of language and identity

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By Associate Professor Dr Doris Schedlitzki.


As a German national, I have always been both fascinated with and troubled by the romantic belief in leaders that seems to dominate life in organisations based in English speaking countries. When – as an undergraduate student – I first encountered the idea of the effective leader who can pretty much save a team or organisation single-handedly by winning followers’ hearts and minds and showing them the path to enlightenment, I was excited. This is the answer that nobody had talked about when I was growing up in post-WW2 Germany! Studying for a degree in Industrial Relations where conflict was a given assumption of daily reality in the workplace, this idea of leadership felt nicer, warmer and promising harmony (Collinson, 2012; Learmonth and Morrell, 2017). It was like leaving the cinema after watching a big blockbuster movie where, through tenacity and bravery, the hero comes forth to save the day.

Alas, this fascination was soon marred when I embarked on my PhD in leadership studies and cracks in this positive image of the heroic, effective leader started to appear when trying to compare forms of leadership in Germany and the UK. As a native German speaker, I was lost for words. I simply could not translate the words leader, manager, leadership and follower into the German language (Jepson, 2010). The meaningfulness and indeed power of the language of leadership, intertwined so deeply with and dependent on the denigration of management (Ford and Harding, 2007), was lost. The realisation that language mattered and that without an ability to articulate a sense of self as leader or indeed follower was significant and opened up avenues for exploring my own aversion to being called a leader or follower.

Through my research into leadership, language and identity, I have explored some of the manifold ways in which language matters for our understanding of the concept and practice of leadership. By exploring notions of leadership and management in the German language (Jepson, 2009; 2010) and in Welsh (Schedlitzki et al., 2016), for example, I have highlighted the importance of paying attention to culturally and historically embedded meanings of leadership but also warned of the dangers of oversimplifying and stereotyping the connection between nationality and leadership so as to recognise diversity in meaning within and across languages. With colleagues (Schedlitzki et al., 2016; Schedlitzki et al., 2017) I have called for a research agenda in leadership studies that pays attention to the importance of language, giving voice to currently muted and diverse meanings embedded in non-English languages and regional dialects. This may bring to the fore other, culturally embedded notions of organising that are more meaningful for individuals’ sense of self in the workplace than the idea of the effective leader.

But we do not have to venture ‘abroad’ to realise how much language matters for our understanding of who we are – our identity in the workplace. Myself and colleagues (Schedlitzki et al., 2017) have joined others (e.g. Ford and Harding, 2015) in questioning the ease with which we assume that individuals will see themselves as leader and/or followers in their daily working life. Whilst some may identify quite readily with being a leader, others will experience the daily frustration of wanting to be a leader but feeling like they never quite reach the mark of the effective, great leader depicted in the media and literature. Why is this so? Some argue it is the lack of ‘real’ followers in the workplace (Harding, 2015); others (Collinson, 2011; Ford, 2010; Liu and Baker, 2016) argue that the language of leadership conjures up an image of the ideal leader that is predominantly white, male, masculine, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual and middle aged. Coupled with near heroic abilities of a leader promoted through popular theories like transformational leadership (Alvesson and Karreman, 2016), we start to realise that this effective leader image is highly exclusionary and often unattainable (Ford et al., 2008).

So, where does this leave us? Gaining an understanding of the manifold ways in which language matters for our understanding of leadership and sense of self in the workplace may indeed give us a sense of control over who we can be. Understanding the language of leadership in our workplace may enable us to see the image that it creates of an effective leader and the extent to which we fit into this image or resist it. This may help to make sense of barriers we are experiencing to developing a sense of self as a leader or follower. This insight may also invite us to try and influence both the organisational language of leadership and the image conjured through this language to make space for alternative meanings and images of leadership – or indeed other forms of organising – that are more meaningful for our sense of self.

Ethnography and Emotion: Understanding anxieties when doing research

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By Dr Neil Sutherland and Dr Jenna Pandeli

Since meeting in 2015, the two of us have had countless discussions about our experiences in doing fieldwork. Whilst being involved with very different sites (including prisons and activist groups), we both found the experience emotionally difficult and troublesome. We were regularly in states of anxiety and fear; doubting our own abilities; or worrying about situations we found ourselves in. However, we kept this bottled up – away from our supervisors, away from ourselves and certainly away from being written up into our work. We have been consistently surprised when talking with friends and colleagues that also seem to have made attempts to write out stories that highlighted their lack of control and perceived ‘weak’ emotional states. Indeed, although recent years have seen an upturn in auto-ethnographic and reflective writing, some have rallied against the overwhelming presence of the researcher within data, noting such reflexivity as ‘navel-gazing’, and self-absorbed narcissism. Elsewhere, ethnographer’s confessions are belittled under the tag-lines of ‘going native’; failing to abide by rigorous social scientific standards; resulting in a potential distortion, dilution or weakness of research findings. Consequently, at risk of critique, ethnographers may self-censor our accounts in order to portray the image of not only the all-knowing connoisseur in the field, but of the wholly emotionally grounded ‘ideal type’ researcher. Anxieties, concerns and fears of failure are written out in favour of a cleaner narrative. In contrast, we are trying to argue that the backstage emotions are an inherent part of ethnographic research and should be accepted and supported, rather than being denied, decried and discarded.

After gathering our thoughts on the subject over some time, we presented an early version of these ideas at the 11th Annual Ethnography Symposium held at UWE in August 2016. Amongst other things, we stressed the value of speaking about emotions for not simply the therapeutic and existential benefits, but for raising awareness of the real lived experience of doing ethnography for those who would otherwise turn to stayed and static how-to guides. Further, we argued that these messy aspects of fieldwork are worthy of greater discussion; there is a need to prepare future ethnographers for the experiences of undertaking research and to provide them with the knowledge that they are not alone.

As a result of this presentation, we were asked by Dr Stephanie Russell to present our work at Anglia Ruskin university in April 2017 – to interested PhD students and staff alike. Here, we honed in particularly on the idea of creating ‘safe’ (or ‘brave’) spaces, where researchers can come together to share their experiences in a non-judgemental environment, where they would not be ridiculed or belitted for discussing their feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. During an interactive discussion, we spent some time pondering whether uncomfortable emotions can in fact be utilised to make sense of research sites – that is, to illuminate struggles that particular communities go through, and to understand important embodied interactions. This project is still a work in progress, but we look forward to developing ideas further in order to assist researchers in finding strategies for managing experiences, navigating through fieldwork in a safer way and creating a platform for discussion within the academic community and beyond.

Bristol Rising to the Leadership Challenge

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Delegates discuss the need for a citywide approach to leadership (Front row, right to left – Tracie Jolliff, Mayor Marvin Rees, Cllr Asher Craig, Sarah Minns, John Simpson)

12 May 2017

Today marked the launch of Bristol Leadership Challenge (BLC) – a dynamic new initiative to mobilise the leadership potential of the City to address its most significant and entrenched challenges. Inspiring speeches by Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, Tracie Jolliff, Head of Inclusion and Systems Leadership at the NHS Leadership Academy, and John Simpson, Independent Chair of the Golden Key partnership, highlighted the need to think and work differently in order to address inequality and embrace the creative potential of all who live and work in Bristol. A ‘systems leadership’ approach, where there is genuine commitment to working collaboratively in order to address shared challenges, offers the only realistic way forward in a resource-constrained environment yet requires courage in order to take a stand for what matters.

For the past eight months Professor Richard Bolden and colleagues from Bristol Business School at UWE have been supporting a consortium of Bristol-based organisations, convened by Golden Key and the Mayor’s City Office, in developing the Bristol Leadership Challenge. The programme, starting in October 2017, is designed for current and aspiring leaders from across statutory, voluntary and business sectors in Bristol, who have the motivation and potential to make a lasting contribution to leadership of the City. We are seeking to literally ‘change the face’ of leadership in Bristol, leaving a lasting legacy through the programme’s focus on a specific challenge (mental health in the first year) and developing a network of committed, engaged and competent system leaders.

The programme will be delivered by staff and associates from Bristol Leadership and Change Centre (UWE) in collaboration with the Leadership Centre (London). Sessions will comprise a mix of experiential, conceptual and practical activities facilitated by a highly experienced team.  Participants will hear from experts in the field and develop their capacity for systems leadership by working on a real-life citywide challenge, reporting their findings and recommendations to key stakeholders from across Bristol.

If you, someone you know, or your organisation is interested in participating in or sponsoring this programme, please contact to find out more.

Movement and Learning

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By Dr Arthur Turner

I have been working with the Centre in Bristol for 18 months and have often looked across from the Executive Development Centre (where most of my work has taken place on campus) at the new building rising on periphery of the site. I wondered about the impact of the new building on the efficacy of the executive programmes we collectively deliver.

In addition, I have been trying to make more space in my small study at home and noticed again the plethora of books I had been collecting over the last five years or so which have walking, movement or the outdoors as their main focus.

Recently I overheard a group talking about a previous workshop and they were debating about where to sit in the room in order to avoid a previous stiff neck induced by the previous day spent staring at a screen! Their comment seems more to do with remembering their physical state rather than the content delivered! This prompted me to think more closely the role of movement in aspects of learning; a role which is often ignored in the pursuit of the sight of a screen (or multiple screens!) as proxy for the structure of a course, programme or module.

Previously, and to explore movement in education a little further, Gareth Edwards and I had been talking and walking together in snatches of collaborative effort. We also have been able to ‘follow’ a group in Wales/Cymru who have been learning with a Welsh company (who only deliver their programme outside and through the medium of walking) in order to see if we can understand what are the significant features of learning enabled through the medium of walking and movement. The group of 12 employees in a public service organisation have been attending two to three-hour mobile workshops on personal effectiveness; one per week for 3 months. Reflective diaries have been being filled out by the participants, along with video and audio recordings of the group, in response to the workshop material/experience and these diaries will be ready for review in May.

Another recent example springs to mind. As part of my work outside of the University of the West of England I was invited to work in the Republic of Ireland just before Easter and commissioned to present a Masters’ level module about leadership, change, innovation and transformation through business excellence models! The delegates were mainly senior managers and top company leaders from public service from both countries on the island plus a further disparate group of other leaders from finance companies, journalists and industrial managers. 18 delegates were present and this was their third session of a 1-month course which had included a 5-day study tour to Boston whose University were co-sponsors of the Masters’ qualification.

What was shocking was the initially almost completely passive nature of the delegates despite their seniority and the ways in which their learning and understanding of the topics had not taken account of significant aspects of space, place and pace. Finding ways of improving their engagement was a challenging, but interesting, process based on me providing a number of challenges to their thought-processes and their activity within the group as they learnt.

Two aspects of this warrant further description and thought.

Firstly, the delegates were separated from the facilitator (lecturer) by a row of tables effectively pinning the delegates in a narrow tube of space bordered by bricks and windows, making movement between individuals really difficult due to the proximity of the wall! Participants at one of the long row could not see colleagues at the other end. The empty space in front of the desks was pretty large (it contained 20 people fairly easily) and then on the opposite wall, by two enormous screens, was the facilitators’ (and for some of the sessions the presenters’) seat.

By re-naming the large space within the surround of the tables and chairs the ‘learning place’ I was able to convince the delegates to move between this more active space whilst maintaining a safer ‘home’/reflective space between the tables and chairs.

The change for the group from passive to active took a couple of hours with candidates initially complaining about having to move or manipulate chairs in awkward spaces. This change in approach illustrated, on some levels, the very topic we were studying – change and transformation – and the emotional attachment we humans have to the status quo.

Using the learning space as described above I created a session so that the group could investigate their understanding of business excellence. I was also able to utilise the artefacts from the pre-planning, namely the paper copies of the slides that each delegate had in their pack, so that we remained true to the curriculum of the module.

I chose four of the most popular models in the pack of printed slides; Total Quality Management, European Excellent Model, Investors in People and the Balanced score card.

Four groups of four were randomly chosen (to help to exclude friends’ groupings) and four chairs were placed together, facing in on each other, at the four corners of the learning space. Two observers from the group were chosen to provide feedback on the process and the learning.

Very closely timed, the session allowed each group ten minutes to debate their business excellence models based on two things: their own experiences and the collection of slides that covered their topic. After ten minutes the group had further 5 minutes to consolidate their thoughts and to appoint an emissary to visit the other groups in turn. The emissary moved clockwise to the next group after ten minutes – five minutes of which was to discuss their ‘own’ model and the other five minutes to listen to the views of the group they were visiting. This movement continued until the emissary was back to their original group whence they had to teach their group what they had learnt on their travels. This invented technique, which the group jokingly called ‘Arthur’s quadrangle’, was characterised by a lot of movement, intense concentration and a lot of voices engaged in noisy, focussed debate, challenge and opinion. A real contrast to the silent acceptance of a previously delivered section of the programme.

A second way in which movement was incorporated in the group’s learning was through an adapted psycho-geographical approach by asking the delegates to wander purposelessly around the centre of Dublin (as opposed to walking directly from A to B for a distinct reason). Taking change as the topic they were asked to notice something about changes in the City that might be revealed around corners, in hidden ‘city-scapes’ or juxtapositions of unusual and frequently unseen objects or buildings! This induced a good deal of reflective work on the topic of change and the group presented back to the plenary session in any way they felt was helpful. This included a hand-drawn picture, an acted session in front of the group using a shawl, a fine description of watching traffic lights change for half-an-hour and many people took photos on their ‘phones and as they presented back to the group used a Whatsapp group so that all the group could see the image being discussed.

All this has made me ponder on the ways in which we in the faculty use space, place and pace to engage our learners in a more dynamic form of learning. I have been wondering how much more effective it might be follow the ideas of teachers such as Parker J. Palmer to be able to intuitively and flexibly command the interest and participation of group members by adding regular movement and, what Stephen Zaccaro calls, experiential variety more into our teaching and interaction. With large groups of undergraduates this may be impossible but with smaller executive groups or tutorial groups this adaptive approach may be perfectly and continuously possible.

Dr Arthur Turner




Cake in the Office – health hazard or edible symbols of collegiality and teamwork?

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By Dr Harriet Shortt

A longer than average blog post, but it’s about cake, so it’s important…!

I am sure many of us are familiar with cake in the office – cakes to celebrate a colleague’s birthday, cake sales for fundraisers in the office canteen, exotic sweet treats brought back by co-workers returning from holiday, and office bake-offs between competitive teams.

The BBC reported last year that this ‘office cake culture was a danger to health’ and the Royal College of Surgeons argue ‘workplace cake culture’ is impacting the health of workers in the UK, citing obesity and dental problems as key issues caused by such activities. The latest report from the Royal Society for Public Health (published in August 2016) discusses the impact of rush hour commuting on our health and well-being and notes that unhealthy food and drinks that are made available by outlets in train stations during our commute is potentially adding ‘an average of 767 calories’ to our diets each week. And only in January of this year, The Telegraph reported that civil servants had been warned that ‘office cake culture could be a public health hazard’ by a blog post written by a member of the Treasury’s ‘Wellbeing Workstream’.

Whilst I am not disputing the issues raised in these reports – they highlight important timely and relevant concerns around the health of the UK workforce – I would like to raise some further questions and thoughts about what other role cake plays in our offices today. Office cake culture isn’t just about health concerns – my argument here is that food plays a vital social, cultural and political role in office life and organisations should be considerate of the relationships and interactions that are centred around food.

I have been doing some research in a large public sector organisation about the food and drink consumed in their office – or more specifically, their new open-plan office. I am exploring the interconnectedness of food, work, people and space and considering how the ‘foodscape’ (where and how people encounter food in the built environment) of the workplace influences food consumption and social interactions at work. I have been asking: In what ways does space influence where we eat, what we eat and with whom? What is the role of food in our organisational environment and how does it impact everyday spatial practices? How might formal and informal eating practices alter our everyday experiences of space at work?

To help address some of these questions, I asked the staff I worked with to take photographs of their daily interactions with food in the office. They took photographs of food in the canteen, home-made cakes on desks, tins of biscuits on locker tops, and where they made tea and coffee. They talked to me about what meanings these held and why they were important in their everyday lives.

Some of the findings show how formal, designated spaces for eating and drinking, such as the canteen and tea stations, are popular with many workers. Eating lunch in the canteen with groups of friends is a daily ritual and provides opportunities to talk about personal lives, gossip, and a time and space to share hobbies and interests. The tea stations, designed by management and the architects to provide a space in which workers could meet whilst making a hot drink, are identified as ‘nice chatting areas’. However, although the tea stations provide a space to share a few words with colleagues and allow for chance meetings with others, due to their central public location in the open-plan office conversations here are brief and inhibited by the visible and audible nature of the space. Participants noted these drinking spaces were neither suitable for private or work related discussions.

During our discussions, workers reflected on their new open-plan, hot-desking environment and told me they felt this workplace design impacted negatively on teams and working practices: ‘…we just don’t get the banter around the office…not social banter, but I mean sort of asking for advice on what we’re doing…now we’re hot-desking it can be isolating…and there are too many people around’. In amongst these feelings of isolation, what these workers really appeared to value was the informal, ad-hoc sharing of food at desks and on locker tops in walkways and corridors. It is the ability to share food across this new office space that workers identify as key to bringing people back together and reconnecting conversations. Sharing food in this way is an important catalyst in promoting work based discussions and internal networking; ‘…people come and see us when we have food! It gets people talking…’ and ‘…cake, it’s really important…it breaks up the day, gives us a treat…it impacts on morale in a big way’.

It is worth reflecting here that, as a number of researchers have noted, open-plan offices are often designed with collaboration and teamwork in mind, yet here we see the word ‘isolating’ being used to describe how this new open-plan space is experienced by its users. It is somewhat ironic that workers feel isolated with ‘…too many people around’. Nonetheless, it seems it’s the combination of both open-plan space with food that produces a collaborative working environment for these workers. Indeed, one employee describes the placement of food on locker tops as how people ‘…display their wares and encourage people to talk more’ and how this ‘…encourages passers-by to stop, talk a bit of shop, eat and move on’.

Paradoxically, despite all the talk of talk, social interactions and connecting over cake, workers also identify the inability to eat alone as problematic. The very sociality of eating poses privacy issues for some and the open-plan, hot-desking environment presents particular challenges. Some identify the canteen as a space where the ‘pressure to talk’ is unwelcome. The canteen has been designed and is used by many as a social space where bench seating and long tables promote conversation and create a setting where meals are eaten together. Yet, for example, one worker told me ‘…I just want go and sit and eat my lunch and get back to work’ and is frustrated there is no opportunity, or rather no space, in which he might dine alone. The spatial and social expectations in the canteen are such that talking over lunch is a prerequisite. Indeed, a number of workers deliberately choose to eat lunch at alternative times of the day in order to avoid eating with others.

Consequently, alternative spaces for private dining are frequently sought out. Almost half the workers I spoke to took photographs outside the office, at various locations in the nearby city centre that captured where they liked to eat, including cafes, parks, and benches by the river: ‘…I can…sit on the green and have a bit of peace and quiet and eat my sandwich’. Others talked about finding alternative meeting and eating spots in cafes so they could ‘…talk about sensitive materials…’ over lunch or ‘…have a bit of a gossip…’ As we heard, the tea stations offer a nice chatting area, but as one worker said ‘…you’ve got to be careful because obviously now we are open plan, everyone near that area can hear what you’re saying!’ It seems only certain sorts of conversations can be had over food in the office and if privacy is required, alternative eating spots are pursued.

So far, my research has unearthed a complex picture of the foodscape of work – it throws new light on the appropriation of space in the office, re-defined by workers as informal eating locations and spaces for informal munching and chatting, vital for their morale, team communications and internal networking. It has also emphasised that the boundaries of a workplace foodscape are fluid and that we don’t just eat in the office and we don’t always want to eat with others. Sometimes solace is sought and eating a sandwich alone offers workers rare moments of contemplation and reflection in an otherwise impermanent, visible, and public working world.

In this current climate of health and well-being programmes and the drive for a healthy workforce, organisations might wish to take heed of the complex meanings of food across the landscape of work before implementing such programmes or raising alarm bells that cake in the office is a public health hazard. Indeed, other discourses around health and eating at work promote messages that food should only be consumed in designated eating spaces, and not at ones desk. This comes from other health and safety perspectives where workers are encouraged to take ‘proper breaks’ and avoid working through lunch breaks as well as organisations who demand a clean and tidy office, with clear rules ‘not to eat at your desk’.

However, if organisations are serious about understanding the eating habits of their employees, they should understand that food matters at work, but not just in the canteen and not just in relation to health. If organisations wish to remove food from parts of the office, they should be mindful that they are potentially removing the very catalyst that promotes sociality at work and confiscating edible symbols of collegiately.

In addition, organisations must be wary of their disciplinary approach to eating in the office and how, perhaps, this undermines the needs of some workers and marginalises others’ food choices and behaviour. We might reflect on the lack of space in which workers are able to eat privately and consider that eating at ones desk is perhaps less about working through a lunch hour, and actually more about simply creating a personal space in which to eat alone and enjoy a moment of peace and quiet.

I hope that some of the questions I raise here, and in my research, may provide a starting point for other, future research into food, eating and the workplace – we might want to consider; what do the foodscapes of homeworkers look like and how are they experienced? How are foodscapes experienced and constructed by workers on the move or flexible workers without desks or offices? To what extent should we be concerned with ‘office cake culture’ given its social, cultural and political importance for workers? It is with these questions in mind that I end this blog and ponder over the future of food in the workplace, over a sandwich and coffee at my desk.


Harriet’s research will be published in a book later this year: Kingma, S., Dale K. & Wasserman, V. (Eds.). Organizational space and beyond: The significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies – an edited collection. London: Routledge. Harriet will be discussing her research at the 12th Organization Studies Summer Workshop ‘Food Organizing Matters: paradoxes, problems and potentialities’ in Crete 18th -20th May 2017. Harriet is also supervising UWE Bristol Business School dissertation student Susannah Robinson, who is exploring the culture of food at work in a multinational organisation in London.

This blog has also been published by the national development organisation Work Wise UK: