Academic Spotlight: Dr Harriet Shortt

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Dr. Harriet Shortt

In this Academic Spotlight interview, we asked Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor in Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol Business School, about her area of research.

Tell us about your background and your research interests?

I am interested in the spaces and places of work and how they make people feel, and how the material environment of work impacts the everyday lives of workers. I also use visual methods in my research, and I’m interested in how these approaches can tell us something more or help us understand something better, instead of simply asking people questions. Often visual research methods allow us to uncover emotional responses, rich in meaning. I also use visual methods, such as participant-led photography and projected drawing, in my teaching practice and on our Executive Education course ‘Personal Mastery in Leadership’.

Why do you think workspace is an important area of research?

Spatial change is important for lots of different reasons.It’s important from an organisational perspective because it’s their real estate and space is expensive, so organisations want to know they are using space effectively and economically. And it’s important from an individual perspective – we know that space impacts people’s sense of wellbeing, sense of identity, and sense of belonging. If organisations think about space carefully and really tune in to how it makes workers feel, it can have a direct impact on belonging, well-being, happiness, and ultimately productivity. We’re having big conversations now in society and workplaces about where we’re working and why, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted working practices.  Now is the time to be doing research and understanding why people like to work at home or in the office or somewhere in-between. It’s important that we empower workers to create their own spaces and have a voice in this ongoing conversation about workplace.

You’ve led projects with both public and private sector organisations. What is the most exciting or rewarding consultancy project you’ve worked on?

I think my PhD research will always be one of the best research projects I’ve led! I explored how hairdressers construct a sense of identity in relation to the material environment of work and worked with lots of hairdressers working in salons all over the UK. I think hairdressing salons are one of the most fascinating places in the world, full of social, cultural, and aesthetic meaning. In particular, the experience of liminal space emerged as being crucial to this project. For so long, spaces such as corridors, cupboards, toilets, and doorways have been overlooked and seen as transitory ‘non-places’, yet for the hairdressers, or perhaps any sort of worker in a public-facing, open-plan, fluid sort of space, these ‘non-places’ are important in relation to how they construct a sense of identity, how they seek friendship, and how they manage their emotions in the workplace. In this way, these were real sites of identity construction for these workers, and they weren’t ‘non-places’ at all – they are full of meaning.

Have the COVID lockdowns provided any interesting avenues for thinking about home and hybrid working?

Absolutely! This is something we should all be thinking about and talking about, because we’re not necessarily out of it yet and it has impacted such a huge part of the knowledge workforce. I don’t think we’ve had the chance to properly talk about it yet, but we should start to consult workers about how home working or hybrid working has been for them.  I feel lots of organisations have said ‘we don’t need our offices anymore’, or ‘if course we can all work from home now’ – there seems to be some wild decision making going on and really, we should be spending time asking the workforce how they feel about it? Asking questions, like how’s it been? What was it like for you? What did you learn about homeworking? And what do you want to bring back to the office? I don’t yet feel there is a shared understanding of what hybrid working actually is. Everyone’s interpretations are different and that’s ok, but organisationally we need to make better sense of what new working practices look like – it goes back to this idea of identity, belonging and a connection with our workplaces – this needs re-thinking post-Covid.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working a number of live research projects at the moment and writing up papers as outputs from research projects that I’ve just finished.

Two core projects I am part of are: 1) as part of a cross-faculty funded research project, I’m working on a project focussing on hybrid working with colleagues who work in public health at UWE. We’ve started gathering visual data that explores what hybrid working looks like for knowledge workers during Covid-19. And 2) as part of a British Academy of Management grant, I’m working with colleagues at UWE, Oxford Brookes and London Met who specialise in leadership and language, and I’m supporting the visual methods approach we are taking. We’re using visual methods to understand what inclusive leadership looks like and how this manifests across different cultures.

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