This article follows Marking space — in a shared (work)space, what is mine vs yours and why does it matter?.
The concept of earning a shared space entered our conversation via personal anecdotes that then led to larger topics and questions.
While I (Lisa) was still studying fine arts, I once entered the shared studio at university after an absence of two-or-so weeks. Looking forward to taking up my work where I had left it, I headed to my designated table. No one else was there but the presence of my studio mates was communicated to me in an unexpected way, as I was greeted by the smell of cold cigarette smoke and a full ashtray on top of my table. Since some of the students who had their workspaces next to mine were smokers, they had repurposed my table that was left unoccupied for the last two weeks as a gathering place and smoking corner. For them, it was most likely just a practical matter: The table was not used for now, so why not open it up for something that those present wanted at the moment? For me, however, it stung and immediately curbed my enthusiasm for being back in the studio. Being in my final year at uni and having often skipped on the opportunity to have a devoted workspace in the past in favor of those who truly needed one, I felt that I had earned that space and was dismayed by the cigarette buds signaling me otherwise.
My choice of words — earning a space — conjured up a related experience in Tomomi’s mind.
Our emotions regarding the situations were similar: My affiliation with the space should be enough and I should not have to earn it through factors such as frequency.
But what does it mean to earn a space? What did we mean by it? Looking at the situation, we seemed to think of it as “proving oneself”. We thought of ourselves as belonging to the place and expected to sense this upon entering. But the signals we received, intended or not, seemed to tell a different story. A space that is earned, then, seems to refer to a space that we feel a sense of belonging to, and to earn a space would mean to build such a feeling of belonging. “I thought I had earned the space” implied, “I thought I belonged” and “I should not have to earn the space by means of appearing regularly” meant “my belonging to this place should not depend on such factors”.
As both experiences were triggered by longer absences, and as we now find ourselves faced with such radically changed working rhythms and styles, it seemed beneficial to dive into the reasons and processes behind those situations. Exploring how belonging was lost may give us some meaningful knowledge on how it might be built; how space might be earned.
Three findings emerged from a deeper look into these anecdotes:
A shift had occurred. There was an expectation towards the space and our position in the space: We assumed to find them the way we left them and were then surprised when we found them changed and felt strangeness in a space we once considered as ours. A sense of belonging can be lost. If such a shift can happen, it seems that belonging cannot simply be declared once and set in stone forever like that.
Wondering about how such a shift seemed to happen out of thin air, I felt reminded of Gregory Bateson’s metalogue (a conversation whose structure itself conveys something about the problem being discussed) “Why Do Things Get Into a Muddle”, in which a daughter asks her father the titular question:
Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?
Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?
D: Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.
F: But do your things get in a muddle if you don’t touch them?
No-not if nobody touches them. But if you touch them — or if anybody touches them — they get in a muddle and it’s a worse muddle if it isn’t me.
The father proceeds to answer the question by demonstrating the concept of entropy in various ways, showing how things tend to go towards chaos because for any given thing there are infinitely more ways for it being out of order than being ordered. However, as the daughter acknowledges, while muddles happen easily, they don’t just happen completely by themselves. This is relevant for our exploration of dynamics in shared spaces if we consider “tidy” to not only refer to neatly arranged material items but the agreed-upon order of things — meaning the physical set-up as well as rules and norms of behavior. Conversely, a “muddle” would be a state of things that is not in the agreed-upon order. For this muddle of non-belonging to happen, some process had taken place and thus there might be something we have to do to keep up a sense of belonging — despite our reluctance, we might have to earn our space after all.
After discovering my workspace repurposed like that, I proceeded to clean it up since I needed to use the table. I threw away the cigarette buds and wiped away the stray ash. Opening the window, the smell, too, soon dissolved. The place was back to the state I had left it in and, on a practical level, I was ready to return to my work as if nothing had happened. But the new, weird feeling about my position in this space lingered. The place did not quite feel like it felt before. The fact that the strangeness persisted hints at the possibility that a feeling of belonging cannot be created by yourself alone and needs the involvement of others. Imagine your family or friends set up the dinner table for everyone but you and started the meal without telling you. To join them, you then had to find a spare chair in the house and squeeze yourself and your table between the others. Even though you now had created a spot at the table for you and were able to eat together with everyone, surely your actions themselves won’t create a comfortable sense of belonging. Since this sense is related to something outside of yourself, it would make sense for it to require more than you acting alone.
However, I would also argue that a feeling of belonging cannot be created by others for you and needs your own involvement. When finding yourself unexpectedly without a place to work, it would be a nice gesture if a coworker were to notice, tell you to wait, and hurriedly proceeded to set up a table for you. Upon the declaration of “you can work here!”, the practical issue would have been resolved and a sense of being welcome might be conveyed. So what is my nit-picky issue with this scenario?
I think that such a reaction would be, finally, inapt to salvage the broken sense of belonging because it implies a nuance of permission. In wanting to take the trouble off you by kindly preparing a spot for you and inviting you to work there, they have taken up the role of a host, which, in turn, gives you the role of a guest. As argued in essay 1, being welcome is a grand experience, but it is different from feeling a sense of belonging. As only belonging grants you the freedom to take up space and let your individual strengths truly bloom, being welcome falls short in the context of a shared workspace.
If you are not involved in the process of earning a space, you might be stuck in this host-guest dynamic.
After exploring these thoughts on lost belonging and on how a space might or might not be earned, we tried to approach the concept from the other direction and examine the flip-side of it: a situation in which a space felt collectively earned and belonging to each other and the space itself was created.
To paint the full picture of the occurrence that came to my mind, I need to give some context: I live in a 50 person share house in Tokyo, a co-living arrangement that is comparable to a dormitory, although not affiliated with any university or company. Everyone has their own room while the kitchen, showers, and toilets are shared. A common area, compatible to a living room, is connected to the main kitchen which about half the housemates use while the others stick to the — less social — “mini kitchen” on each floor. The biggest difference to co-living arrangements that are common in Europe — sharing an apartment with friends or with people you have chosen — is that we have no real reign over the space, no say in who moves in or how the space is organized. The rules are set up by the sharehouse company, by someone who is not living in the house themselves and has no insights into the dynamics or needs of the residents. They are created independent of communal logic and are instead meant to keep up a “model home” look for prospective new tenants. It is anyway difficult to establish or apply common norms as people move in and out so frequently. If a mess is left behind, one can only communicate grievances via messenger and hope that the culprit even joined the LINE group at some point.
The space is not authentically ours, we are just using it. It is a hybrid state between being at home and being a guest.
But each year, there is a period of time when this changes. While cleaning of the shared areas is usually done by staff during weekdays, on December 31, the people who regularly use the common spaces come together for a big end-of-year cleaning. Apart from the meeting time and place, there are no plans or pre-assigned duties. People arrive and the actions develop from there. While wiping the freezer, someone might notice that the lid does not close properly because of built-up ice and suddenly a team is formed, emptying the freezer completely, scraping fossils of forgotten food from former housemates off the bottom, and, eventually, carrying out the massive box to defrost it and clean it thoroughly. The people who arrive a bit later see that the kitchen doesn’t need any more hands and instead move to the other rooms, remembering that the sofa pillows in the living room could need a deep cleaning or that the showers don’t drain properly anymore. The tasks are not pleasant but we do them collectively, taking responsibility for the place and each other and the mood stays cheerful. The space, our experiences in it, and the cleaning process itself tell us what to do and how to set up the space.
In the weeks following the cleaning, the atmosphere in the common areas has changed. Everybody, even the introverted ones, talks more, people eat together instead of disappearing in our little smartphone-generated bubbles. The space itself is cherished more, dishes are washed immediately and surfaces are wiped a bit more thoroughly. The group that is so randomly put together feels more like a community, the place more like home. We have built a belonging in it, we have earned the space.
This yearly event has a name — Osouji, the Japanese tradition of deep cleaning the house as the year comes to an end. It is done earlier than the traditional spring cleaning that happens in other corners of the world but originates from the same mundane necessity: as houses were heated by burning coal, soot would accumulate in the house during the cold months and would need to be removed eventually. Osouji, however, has an explicitly spiritual component and is an essential end-of-year ritual, done to welcome the Toshigami, the New Year deity into a cleansed residence and to start the new year with a clean slate.
A sense of this fresh start permeates our collective cleaning too. When it is done collectively like that, it is not just about arranging things in 90-degree angles and making everything shiny. It is an event, even a ritual, that is as much about the practicality of deep cleaning a space, as it is about coming together as a community and taking responsibility for the space we share. There is something fundamental about it, akin to setting up camp. By collectively and physically interacting with the room, it will most likely lead to organic reflections: What makes sense and what doesn’t (anymore)? How do we want this space to be? And how do we want to be in this space?
With this experience in mind, we want to suggest the practice of Osouji as something to explore in the context of changed working rhythms and styles and something to counter the more undesirable dynamics that might arise from the irregularity of presence and absence in the hybrid workplace.
The findings above (arranged in an inverted order) will give some insights into how an Osouji should be implemented if it is to be used to earn a space collectively. How can we transform the mundane activity of removing dirt into something that creates mutual belonging in the space we share?
If the goal is, to create a feeling of belonging, the Ousoji cannot be outsourced. As it is not only about the physical cleanliness of the space, but all the same about conversing with the space and with each other, it won’t do, for example, to hire a cleaning firm to put the space back into shape. Naturally, an outsider setting up the space for you won’t lead to you feeling like you earned it, as you have not actually interacted with it yourself.
As we talked about the concept of “spaceholders” in the previous essay, we raised the concern that, over time, some items may not feel right anymore and could turn into clutter. Something, that was once left behind with the intention to hold space for someone that is not present, might lose its “power” and, consequently, its meaning. An Osouji could be used to counter this: By regularly checking in to how the things that surround ourselves, feel, we can make sure that clutter won’t start to pile up. Such a judgment on what feels or doesn’t feel right for the space and for you can only be made by yourself.
The Osouji should not be done by just a part of the group and instead by everyone who is affiliated with the space, regardless of how often they intend to use it. To find rules and norms that make sense for everyone and set up the space in a way that feels just right, we need to find a commonly agreed-upon order.
Drawing more inspiration from Bateson’s metalogue; what is considered “tidy”, or, for our purposes, the order that feels right, varies widely from person to person and from case to case and one person’s “tidy” might be another person’s “muddle”:
D: But, Daddy, isn’t that a funny thing — that everybody means the same when they say “muddled”, but everybody means something different by “tidy”. But “tidy” is the opposite of “muddled,” isn’t it?
F: Now we begin to get into more difficult questions. Let’s start again from the beginning/ You said “Why do things always get in a muddle?” Now we have made a step or two — and let’s change the question to “Why do things get in a state which Cathy calls ‘not tidy?’” Do you see why I want to make that change?
D: … Yes, I think so — because if I have a special meaning for “tidy” then some of other people’s “tidies” will look like muddles to me — even if we do agree about most of what we call muddles -
If the cleaning is done by only a part of the group, an order might be established that feels right only for those involved in the cleaning, while, for the others, it might lead to a feeling of strangeness and even to a host-guest-dynamic.
As the dynamics in space and the use of it can and will change, especially in the context of (post-)covid hybrid work, an Osouji cannot be a one-time event. It should be done repeatedly, be it traditionally at the end of the year or in whichever frequency makes sense for you.
Here, we come full circle, back to issues that were raised in the first essay: We described the situation of someone who suddenly finds themselves alone in a formerly shared space and, gradually and unintentionally, starts adapting by spreading out, which might then lead to someone else feeling like a mere visitor in the common space. The source for this problem, we determined, was, that in this situation devoid of regularity, predictability, and even physical presence, there was little opportunity to upkeep or re-negotiate norms for the shared workspace.
Having a recurring dedicated date, then, to collectively establish an order for the present circumstances and making sure that the space is set up in a way that serves your needs might just be the antidote for shifting dynamics.
If you only come by once a year, let it be the time when you collectively earn the space.
In this essay series, artist Lisa Woite and AQ designer Tomomi Sasaki trace the ideals and struggles of sharing space, each devoted to a different way of being in a shared space: Taking up space, marking space, and earning space.
The series started here: ‘Editing’ the office workspace