Back in 2017 Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol Business School, wrote a piece for Work Wise UK about how the commute – be it on a train, a bus or in a car – offers an important space for reflection and escape. She talked about how the commute can be a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity. The commute, therefore, offers a ‘liminal space’ in which to momentarily dwell – a liminal space being one that is on the ‘border’, a transitory space somewhere ‘in-between’ where we can suspend social expectations – and just press pause. She also reflected on the liminal spaces of the workplace – like corridors, stairwells, corridors and toilets. Places in which, as her research shows, are usually used to escape the visibility of the office or shared workspace and become important territories for private conversations, quiet reflection, and inspiration and creativity (Shortt, 2015).
In her guest blog post with Work Wise UK last week, she talks about the loss of these spaces and how we can find them again in our current conditions working from home, which for many of us also includes juggling home-schooling with work.
Since the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, for many workers these spaces have vanished. We aren’t commuting, which is great for the environment and for a whole host of other reasons, but I wonder if there are some of you who are missing the space the commute created between work and home – that liminal space for reflection, decompression or planning. And, of course, many of us are not in the office, so those corridor conversations, those watercooler moments, those snatched minutes in a toilet catching up with a colleague are gone. All these informal micro-interactions at work that are so vital in the everyday life of workers have, for the time being, disappeared.
Instead, many of us are working from home. We have set up workspaces almost overnight and our homes have become workplaces and meeting rooms, classrooms and gyms, places of worship and places to rest. These changes in our domestic environment have taken some adjusting. We have had to negotiate with partners and children about how our home spaces are used, for what purpose and when, we’ve had to compromise our sense of privacy and open up our homes as personal backdrops on Zoom calls, and as the earlier blog from Stefanie Reissner and Michal Izak shows, we have had to think carefully about how we establish, manage, and re-adjust our work/ home boundaries.
All this transposing of work life into the home and sudden, rather dramatic mass shift to working from home has made me think more about the organisation of space at home, and in particular, the liminal spaces of the home. In all my research projects in both public and private sector organisations over the past 15 years, the significance of liminal space has always emerged – whether it be the cupboards in which hairdressers find respite from the visible work they do, the toilets where open-plan office workers go to have private conversations or the stairwells that nurses use to catch up with each other away from the wards. But what are the liminal spaces in our homes, how are they being used in the current crisis, and do they have any value? As a researcher of organisational life, I’ve seen and heard various stories over the past 8 weeks from UK workers adjusting to working at home, and I’ve had my own experiences as a mother and knowledge worker juggling full time work and home schooling a 5-year-old, and the corners of our homes do seem to be significant in a number of ways…
Firstly – liminal spaces for new working practices. I have spent a number of years researching the work of hairdressers working in hair salons and over the past 8 weeks or so I have been struck by how innovative some in this industry have been at adapting to working life at home, using social media (mainly Instagram) to do so. What has been notable are the uses of liminal spaces in their homes, that are now appropriated as new workspaces. For example, one celebrity hair stylist in London is seen in a walk-in wardrobe demonstrating an easy up-do (wife as model). Another hair stylist in Wales is pictured in a hallway by the mirror demonstrating how to cut a little boy’s hair (son as model). And another stylist in London is filmed in a toilet demonstrating a guide to toning your hair at home (self as model). These new workspaces are allowing them to still work, still connect with clients, but perhaps help them avoid exposing parts of their homes to others and somehow this protects their privacy. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the new Twitter account ‘Room Rater @ratemyskyperoom’ has been set up to comment on and rate the backdrops and private homes of the rich and famous as they Skype and Zoom in the media. As such, the privacy of our homes has been comprised by new working from home practices and so we might reflect on how the liminal spaces in our homes might offer an alternative to putting our more dominant spaces – kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – on display for all to see.
Secondly – liminal spaces for privacy and rest. The privacy issue is one that we have not really talked about during this crisis. The big focus, naturally, during isolation has been countering the feelings of being alone or separated, and as Reissner and Izak advised in their blog earlier this week, we need to stay connected. But just as I would argue that overly open, collaborative workspaces sometimes forget the need for private, quiet space in their designs, for those of us as home in lockdown with partners or families, we might think about how important it is to find just a few moments alone for rest, reflection and respite. One Bristol-based entrepreneur I am working with on research project text me a photograph of her on the roof of her house and said:
‘This is the only place I can get some rest…some peace and quiet. This is where I can just breath for a minute. It’s a beautiful view and a lovely skyline, all the trees and rooftops. I love being up here, I might do this more often’
Another young mother in Bath, who works in the public sector and is working from home with 2 small children said:
‘I find myself just sitting on the stairs to get five minutes peace. If I’m in the kitchen, the kids want snacks. If I’m in the living room I’m working. I just sit on the steps for a few minutes and get a bit of down time’
So, it could be suggested that liminal spaces are helping us, just as they do in the office, to find private quiet moments of respite from family, technology and being on show. The corners of our homes, or, as above, the rooftops and stairs, are being used in the practice of self-care and wellbeing during Covid-19.
And finally – liminal spaces for play. I have seen how liminal spaces are being appropriated for play during our home-based lockdown. My 5-year-old daughter has been at home with my husband and I, like many other children, for the past 8 weeks, and the den-making has been rife! My daughter has made a den on the stairs, under the stairs, under the table in the dining room, in the hallway, on the landing, on the kitchen step. Dens have been built in every nook of our house over the past few weeks and having spoken to a few ‘working-from-home-mum-friends’, it seems I’m not alone in noticing this. One working mother in Oxford told me:
‘Yes, I’ve noticed my kids have been making dens all the time during lockdown! Behind the sofa, under a tree in the garden, all over the place – but never in the actual playroom that’s specifically designed for them and all their stuff!’
This has made me reflect on children’s needs for privacy and ownership over space. They compromise all the time in relation to space, with their bedrooms perhaps being the only haven they might have in a home, and even then for the most part parents place restrictions on these places – no food, no drink, tidy up, make your bed. It is no wonder that children, whilst in lockdown with their parents who are desperately seeking their own spaces and managing boundaries for work/home-life, are claiming snippets of space. This is perhaps a child’s response to seeking solace, rest and privacy, much like the entrepreneur on the roof or the working mother on the stairs discussed above. And of course, this only serves to highlight how liminal spaces, used for privacy and individual territory, are important to everyone, not just grown-ups in the workplace.
So, working at home during Covid-19 has shed some light on the liminal spaces of our homes and how they are emerging as unexpectedly useful. As a response to the lockdown, we have seen how the territories on the margins of the dominant spaces in our homes (those we have defined uses for, like living rooms or kitchens), are now in regular use in new ways. Spaces like cupboards, hallways and stairways have always been there, in our peripheral vison, used mainly for transitioning through the home, but they now come into full view and full use – for work, for rest and for play. In our post Covid-19 world we might reflect on the potential for these spaces; how might they be used differently? What value do they have and for whom? And how might they feature when we’re working at home?
These are all reflections and food for thought on home-working during the Coronavirus crisis. I invite you to reflect on how you are using the corners of your home; what have you noticed about where you are working? Have the stairs and landings featured in your working day and if so, how? And what value do they have? As Bachelard (1958/1994, p.136) reflected, corners are symbols ‘of solitude for the imagination’ – what spaces in your home offer moments for imagination when you are home-working?