‘Space’ is an important word with multiple meanings. It may refer, for instance, to physical, social or mental space. The concept is strongly ontological: from the viewpoint of an individual’s experience, all forms of space are meaningful, and they are also strongly associated with identity.
As part of remote work, many people have started to consider issues such as their experience of physical space, their work environment, ergonomics, even the lack of space. Commuting to work can be an important ritual physically in the transition from one space to another. When the commute is no longer possible, the starting and finish lines of work may become vague. Some people may still keep up a commuting routine by taking a short walk outdoors before and after their working hours. The social space also changes. Co-workers may be replaced with the presence of a spouse or children and the challenges of guiding remote learning. Even an individual’s identity may be put to the test if one has to balance different roles during the day when working at home. This new setting can also affect a person’s mental space in many ways.
‘Space’ also refers to the place we adopt for ourselves or are positioned to in relation to other people’s expectations or conceptions or the surrounding structures. In colloquial language, we talk about finding one’s own space and place.
Is it possible? Can I act and do my job in ways and with aims that I respect and consider good and proper ones?
At times, I have felt like I have no space and found it difficult to position myself within the university community. The transition away from teaching and research duties, in which I had worked for almost 20 years, meant a big change, one that conflicted with my own work identity. My current role, where academic expertise is integrated with developmental and planning activities, feels like a good and proper task. In my experience, however, at the university there prevails a sharp distinction between academic and non-academic staff – and I felt I belonged to neither of these groups in recent years.
The concept of a third space has helped me frame my experience. In research, the concept has been used to describe a new staff group formed in universities that remains somewhere in between the traditional categories of academic and non-academic personnel, as a kind of a hybrid that possesses features of both. In addition, the third space often involves project-like work conducted in collaboration with partners from outside the university. The sense of exclusion and estrangement created by this space happens because the working environment and the organisation fail to recognise such a position or identity.
This third space can also be a transitional or intermediate phase, which produces a new hybrid identity. It can lead to a new, perhaps more permanent, space that offers the possibility to create something new.
I recognise several features of this third space. For myself, research work and related competencies make up a pivotal component of my expertise and its continuous development. This kind of academic expert work, which combines the need to address issues in a shared manner and content-related academic expertise, is becoming more common within the university organisation as well. There seems to be a need for hybrid experts, irrespective of space.
I think that the new working arrangements we’ve been forced into during this time can enable and create new conditions for work and its different spaces – in all of its meanings. I hope that the option for remote working also for us third-space experts would be sustained as a permanent practice. From the perspective of longer-term goals, concentration and pacing of work, periodically working remotely is a sensible option.
Skaniakos is a team leader in Student and Academic Services. She finds multidisciplinary collaboration and teamwork empowering.
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