Who can forget that 1999 supernatural thriller starring Bruce Willis called Sixth Sense? For a while there, the movie started a trend of people going around and saying to each other in spooky voices…”I see dead people”. We recall this particular line because of the twist at the end of the movie that left audiences stunned. We thought back to various scenes of the movie and tried to piece together the clues that the producers had left for us. Why didn’t we pick up on these clues earlier when it was right in front of us all along?
So when Steve Wheeler recently wrote a blog post Blimey, It’s #Blimage, he challenged people to write a blog post using an image he provided so that it would encourage more people to blog. The image he shared was of old wooden desks crammed together. One can assume they’re probably in some dusty classroom waiting for the furniture removalists to take them away so that a furniture restorer who could polish, restore and sell them as reclaimed pieces of furniture art selling for thousands of dollars. But of course, I didn’t see that first.
Instead, my first thought was, “I see desk people…” (in a spooky voice).
Now I’m not one for believing in the supernatural. For people who know me well, they would also laugh at the idea of me having any modicum of a sixth sense. My husband would also humorously add “don’t bother about the sixth sense, when you’re missing one of the five, hearing.” He means hearing him specifically but that’s a story for another day.
Back in 1978, in the fourth year of primary school, I had one of these wooden desks. I think I may have scratched my name in one with my Bic pen too when the teacher wasn’t looking. One of my pleasures was banging the desk closed every time I took something out of its drawer. In a room of 30 school kids and a cacophony of banging desks, this would drive our teacher mad. We were careful not to bang our desks in a synchronised manner, instead drawing out the teacher’s agony by banging our desks within seconds of each other. Ah the simple pleasures of being a school kid.
Who would have thought that in 1978, I would have an additional 37 long years ahead of me to sit at one of these things in different guises?
All those years of sitting at a desk where I learned, wrote, read, typed, communicated, presented, created and dreamed?
Some people have a love hate relationship with their desks but I didn’t. I’ve always loved mine. It’s where I did my best work until it was taken away from me. Let me explain.
My First Desk
I remember my first desk. It actually belonged to my father and it was a retro 60’s wooden desk with the cigar legs and four drawers on each side (it would have looked totally in place on the set of Mad Men). I loved sitting on it and doing my homework (yes, I was a nerdy kid) and everything had its place in its own drawer. I can still remember the sound of those drawers being closed shut and how cool and smooth the surface felt underneath my hands. For me, desks have always been a place of comfort and joy. It was my own little piece of ‘real estate’ that was totally mine and organised the way I wanted – and it was devoted for learning. It was my own private space. As someone who had positive experiences with education and learning, the desk was the place where I spent most of my time – and it also provided me with a convenient excuse to get away from parents, chores and pesky younger relatives who were visiting and constantly harassed me to play with them. My desk was my domain.
My first job was in the Navy as a Training Officer and I had a large desk crammed into a room with other trainers. We didn’t spend all day at our desks as the majority of our day was spent at different activities such as in the classroom training sailors, out on the parade ground marching squads, taking a break at the Wardroom (Officers Mess) or undertaking various duties that involved meeting others at different buildings. The times we were at our desk, I do remember fondly because there were no computers back then and instead, we faced each other and we talked, we came up with ideas for our classroom training, we shared what we were doing with our respective classes, we improved on our classes, and we worked with together to improve our training materials and resources. Most of all, I remember how we shared stories and I remember the laughter.
Over the years, the desk that I loved so much had morphed into something completely different. It soon became a carpeted three-wall cubicle that cocooned you from the rest of the office (namely it was meant to stop you socialising with your co-workers). It isolated you from your team and closed you off to others. It was your own little box where from 9am to 5pm, you were a prisoner to your own thoughts. Sometimes, you didn’t even know who sat next to you or behind you.
My First Experience of the Corporate Cubicle
I remember walking into the corporate office for the first time in my life visiting a friend who had invited me to come along to see where she worked. She had just left the military herself and I recall how cold, uninviting her office was. Confronted by a maze of cubicles, she pops up her head from one of them and all I could hear was the quiet trill of phones ringing somewhere.
“Good! You’re here!” she whispers.
“Why are we whispering?” I ask.
“So we don’t disturb the others.”
“What others? Where are they, I can’t see them!” as I looked around the ghostly office.
(Maybe I should have said “I see desk people….”)
To this day, I will never forget the silence of that office, in particular, the hum of the air conditioning. It was eerie and my introduction to the corporate cubicle.
Luckily, I didn’t have to spend much of my time in those three walled cubicles as I would have gone stir crazy.
The Cubicle Morphs to the Pod
Over the years, the corporate desk became more open but with high walls so that even though you were in a “pod” with your fellow team mates and had your back to them, you could not see who was over the partition. When your team does not meet with others across your department, you could end up in your pod for some years not really knowing the teams beside you. But one day, this broke down for me. It was 11th September 2009 and on this day, we all stood up at our desks in this particular office and we talked about the bombings of the World Trade Centre in New York. And we kept on talking. I learned a lot about people and what they did in our organisation that day. It’s strange that it took a world crisis to get people to talk in an office.
The partitions between cubicles started to get lower over the years. I recall some people complained that they didn’t like to face others or they may be disturbed by their chatter or phone calls but they died down as more people got used to the idea.
In recent years, the cubicles disappeared and they introduced flexi-desking. The reason they told us was that it would encourage people to talk and collaborate and they also added it was a cost saving measure. I was dubious.
I started off with a love hate feeling towards flexi-desking especially as I had to rush into the office every morning to get in early so that I could find a desk with a big screen and a power outlet before everyone else. (There were less desks than there were people and there was a ‘First Come, First Served’ policy). With my back problems, the idea of sitting at a hard plastic chair or stool and timber work bench irritated me and I made an effort to get up and move every couple of hours (as well as find a power point to charge my laptop).
This is when my work started to become inconvenient to me. As someone who was designing and developing learning programs, I needed a desk but more so, I needed a quiet place. It was the first time I started to lament the loss of not just the ‘physical desk’ but my own place in the office that I could claim as my ‘domain’. I felt like a robot having to take out my work belongings from a tiny locker every day and pack them up every day. In between, I moved around floors every few hours like some ghostly long lost soul looking for a place, a free meeting room, a table, a pod, somewhere to set my gear down and just….work. As my day became disjointed, I became frazzled and I felt I was unproductive. I started to feel like a visitor.
To me, my desk is my domain and it is my piece of mind. It is where I did my best learning, my writing, reading and reflection. It is the place where I invited people to come to and talk and a cup of coffee; it is the place where I was invited to share ideas, knowledge, experiences, or to have something demonstrated to me. It was the place where I started conversations with strangers by looking at their photos of loved ones or their travels and interests.
Truth be told, there’s a tinge of nostalgic sadness when I think back to those days when we had our own desks at work.
Now, here is a photo that you can write your own #Blimage post and relate it to learning. I’ve tagged some friends of mine in a tweet and invite them to post their own #Blimage post on this image below. Of course, if you want to go ahead and write something, feel free!