Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Not unfriendly, just unsociable" - Making the iSchool more sociable

Last month's discussion took place, appropriately, during Christmas party season.  At the request of Professor Phil Levy (the iSchool's Head of Department), we discussed the question: "What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place for research students/staff, and to reap the benefits of that for our research?"

Doyle (2000) notes that "Survey after survey shows that employees value having a friendly working atmosphere...The Harvard Business Review reports that Sears found that a 5 per cent rise in staff satisfaction leads to a 0.5 rise [sic] in productivity."

As evidence of the fact that people value work for reasons other than income, Doyle cites an article from the Guardian (2000), which reported the case of Mr Fullerton-Ballantyne, who won £1.89 million in the National Lottery.  He initially quit work, but then returned to buy the company that had employed him so that he could carry on working there.  Presumably he missed his colleagues.  Certainly that was the case for Nicky Cusack, who in 2011, returned to her job in Asda after winning £2.49 million

Not only are sociable workplaces more desirable and possibly more productive, there is also the fact that, despite all the advances in information technology, much exchange of information still takes place face to face; and if people work in a setting where face never meets face, it has negative effects on the exchange of information and ideas.

When Professor Levy's question was put to the assembled researchers however, their initial response was to ask "Do we want to be more sociable?"  Some voiced the concern that, in an effort to encourage sociability, events might be organized which would lead to embarrassing gatherings, where people stood talking to their usual associates, while looking around covertly, trying not to catch the eyes of people to whom they thought they should be speaking.

The iSchool, it was felt, is a reasonably friendly place - just not a sociable one.  When forced into social situations, we don't always know what to say to each other.  What was needed, people thought, were activities appropriate to the aims and objectives of the iSchool, but which provided scope for social interaction.

An example of such an activity was given by some of the newer PhD students.  They had enjoyed their induction, and had created an email list enabling them to maintain contact with others from their cohort.  Some of the more established PhD students expressed regret that they had not been given similar treatment when they first arrived at the iSchool.

A second example discussed had been provided earlier in the day by Alex Schauer.  At lunch time he gave a seminar about the findings of his PhD project to date.  At the end he announced that, to mark the festive season, he had brought a stollen.  People gathered round the cake.  Some stayed and chatted; others grabbed a piece and departed.  Ana Guedes Rosa recalled that, according to a marketing course she had once attended, people linger longer if there are drinks available.  "Ah!" exclaimed the gathering, "Give us wine and we'll socialize!".  Ana countered by noting that hot drinks are better because hotter drinks lead to longer lingering.

Applying analysis and synthesis to the discussion therefore, it becomes clear that an answer to the question:
"What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place?" is
"Ones in which mulled wine is served".

Doyle, J., 2000.  New community or new slavery.  The Industrial Society
Rucci, A. J., Kirn, S.P., Quinn, R.T.  (1998), “The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain atSears,” Harvard Business Review, 76 (January-February), 82-97
Spence, R., 2000.  "How would you handle being rich?"  Guardian, 03/06/2000


  1. One thing that struck me was that some new students said they had found it difficult to get to know people because the research labs are supposed to be silent workspaces - which is understandable, but equally, the labs aren't the appropriate place for chatting and getting to know people.

    As a result, I think it's all the more important for the department to organise events where people can get to know each other, because if the only option is chatting in the lab, then it feeds into the ongoing noise problem.

    1. Also, I took the comments from the researchers' meeting forward to RSSC. It was felt that making MA/MSc students aware of the researchers' meetings would be a good idea and there will even be a biscuit budget available!

      People were also open to the Christmas meal option suggested by Andrew. Other things coming up include the new LIS Research Group seminars on writing for publication, and I think Mark H is planning to organise brunch meetings.

  2. "...the labs aren't the appropriate place for chatting and getting to know people."

    One of the PhD students commented that the door signs asking people to be quiet gave an unfriendly impression. I guess it's a problem in any culture where there is a rapid turnover of people. Elements of the culture can seem undesirable to newcomers because they don't know what the culture was like before those elements were introduced.

    People who have been around longer will remember what it was like trying to concentrate in the big open plan research labs when mobile phone conversations were taking place at frequent intervals. Some mobile phones seem to come with an invisibility and inaudibility cloak. Unfortunately, it works the wrong way round. Rather than making the user undetectable, it makes users oblivious to their immediate environment and its occupants.

  3. I'd like to speak up in favour of chatting!

    I don't spend much time in the research lab, but when I do, I am struck by the negative and unwelcoming impression given by the quiet work signs. I think the ability to discuss work-related topics quietly at your desk with your colleagues has significant practical (as well as potentially social) advantages - indeed, in my experience this potential for exchanging work-related information and knowledge is a key practical benefit of working in an open plan office.

    Are there (or have there ever been) research lab team meetings? These may provide an opportunity to negotiate some issues concerning the work environment in the labs, to get to know other people based in the lab and for newcomers to introduce themselves and be welcomed to the group. Another minor thing which is done in other departments and which might make the labs seem a bit more friendly would be for people's names to be shown above their desks. This would mean that new joiners would have a sense of which colleagues work in the same space, even if they haven't met them all, as well as helping with the challenge of remembering names.

    I'm not sure I share concerns about people using mobile phones - a telephone is a key piece of equipment on most desks in most offices, and it is possible that people use their phones for research purposes. Telephone conversations may need to be conducted in a clear and distinct tone, rather than the hushed whispers which may suffice in an office. I have personal experience of the inconvenience which can be caused when trying to arrange a meeting crucial to my research but feeling unable to take the call in the research lab (I quickly moved to the common room, then realised that all the information I needed to set up the meeting was on the desk I was using, back in the lab).