By Merethe Riggelsen Gjørding, Lab Manager
Come the new semester, we as employees at ITU are expected to be returning to our offices after spending close to 1,5 years working from home, or at least under different restrictions of access to our workplace. During this time, the ETHOS Lab has taken the plants home, left our other non-human companions in the Lab, and have tried to continue to maintain community digitally.
Now, we will repopulate the Lab and, although the joy of reunification is strong, so is the willful hesitance and resistance in returning to “normalcy”. What does it mean to return when conditions are still in flux? What do we return to when our work lives have become reconfigured into new “normals” sustained over many months?
Materiality and Labouring Subjects
One of the many ways corona virus and the political handling of the virus has affected us, has been as labouring subjects. Speaking about turning our homes into offices, is of course already speaking from a position of a) having a home and b) having a job that c) can be executed behind a screen, which in many ways is a highly privileged position, especially under a pandemic. Yet even so, this means different things depending on the size of your apartment or the conditions of your work contract etc. Our experiences are so different, and yet there are commonalities to find.
As a feminist STS methods Lab, we are greatly aware of how materiality influences us, and corona has provided us with some tough embodied experiences of relating through a screen, of shoulder pain, of being enclosed or isolated from colleagues. We have felt the longing after physical copresence with colleagues and experienced the solitude of yet another day of meetings on Teams, feeling distant although being in interaction.
Yet – as sometimes stressed in the public debate – there has also been positive elements in working from home. The gift of time we did not need to spend on commuting – time that is otherwise taken from your free time besides the working hours you get paid for, and not getting stressed out about needing to rush home after lecturing.
If you had the means, you could better accommodate your bodily needs, by shifting working position, taking a nap during the day, attending events online you would not otherwise have been able to due to accessibility issues or distance. When you were sick, people understood that you needed rest and to take care of yourself.
We experienced having greater possibilities of going to the doctor, picking up packages, doing grocery shopping, and being at home when the repair person arrives. Working from home has meant more time with family and household members, for some a welcome chance to be together, for others a harmful enclosure.
We experienced the relief of having space in the workplace for discussing mental wellbeing, and that it became normalized to ask people how they were doing and to answer by “I’m struggling”.
What are We Leaving Behind?
Upon returning to our desks, we are reflecting on which working and everyday life experiences we then are leaving behind. Are there possibilities of bringing in some of that flexibility and priority of the functionally of your foundation – your body and home unit – as norms within the university as a workplace?
Returning will be a laborious endeavor, where we will use a lot of energy and resources in picking up social cues, being in noisy environments, dealing with interruptions, and potentially lose some of the positive consequences some of us have experienced while being and working from home.
Academia is a space of high pace, competition, and precarious conditions and while the virus at this time is more administrable, there are a lot of other conditions to struggle with.
As we age, our bodies are also affected by the tedious tasks of typing and looking at a screen. Centering accessibility and bodily comfort as an important strategy might enable qualified people to take part in academia and make better conditions for those already there.
It is well-known that stress and burn-out are two major issues in academia, and there is a great need to change the contributing conditions. Collective conversations on mental health are something we highly value and that we hope will continue getting space.
In the Lab, we will continue to work with the meeting concept of Mind&Desk, used both before lockdown and during it. Each week we gather and invite each other into our personal reflections and tasks – what is on our mind and what is on our desk. This time may be used to vent whatever frustration we have, just as well as sharing when we experience luck or success.
This transition is for us an opportunity to sit with what we actually are expected to return to, pick up and submit to as workers within the universities. More so, this time of transitioning, where people and practices are in movement, is a potential time of transformation and resistance in not wanting to return to “normalcy”.
Holding on to what has been possible during corona, might be a good strategy to ensure more ground for better working conditions.
As we attempt to repopulate the offices, we hope to hold onto this space for critical reflection on our working lives and vulnerabilities, to set the intention not to merely replicate what we had before, but to actively work differently.