Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Story of an open plan office

I like being a research student in the OUBS. The first and second year and the masters students sit together in an open plan office, half of a wing and there are 4 wings to each floor. We each have:
  • a desk top computer,
  • a personal drive on a central server where our work is automatically backed up,
  • office software,
  • any specialist software that is relevant such as Endnote, Nvivo, SPSS and
  • a cupboard for our files and books.
The director of research degrees programme (DoRDP) has an office in the corner with a permanently open door, literally and figuratively, through which we can hear him sneeze, groan, swear, snort or bleat about whatever email or paper has just passed beneath his glance. He is quick to answer any question we have, and is very supportive.

Students support each other too. One has helped me with a proforma for an ethics application. Someone else is expert on using Endnote, and another has the extension number for the IT technican. So we talk.

Most mornings we break off for coffee and meet together. Discussion is often about sport or families, but also about our research, so it is a supportive and safe environment to start PhD studies.

The third year students leave this home base to sit in their own research area. At least that is the theory, assuming that the student's research area has space. But this year the research areas had no space for the five rising third year PhD students, so DoRP had to work out how to fit in 3 new MRes students and 7 new PhD students. In the end, a couple of students who come in less often got hot desks on other floors, anywhere there was space, and three students together got put in the emptiest research area.

And there arose a small problem because three new people came in together already knowing each other to an office where there are existing standards and expectations. And open plan offices need common agreements on noise and activities. Within almost minutes of arriving the students found that they were talking too loudly for the floor. By the second week, one had been told not to use the phone for more than two minutes, which was patently absurd as work requires you to talk to people on the phone while looking at information on your screen.

What I like is hearing the story of the settling in from different people, the students, those already there, managers and others. Each narrative comes out with a slightly different angle on it. From some it might sound like a power struggle, from another it is just a case of getting on with it, and another might make a comment on a personality. They are all organising their experience and telling the story is part of learning, asking for interpretation of the experience. And relates to where I've got to on reading Czarniawska's Narratives, watching how the stories are being made. By narrating this story, I'm trying to make sense of it myself.

I wonder where they'll put me next year.

Czarniawska, B. (2004) Narratives in social science research, Sage, London. 892

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