A while ago I visited a Nordic university with an absolutely huge staff room. Taking up most of a floor of one building, the room was above all else filled with light. Floor to ceiling windows, pale wooden tables and chairs, artfully scattered cushions, candles, shelves of designer mugs and serviettes…. One day there was a faculty lunch, and the room was big enough to fit everyone in. And the kitchen was big enough for the caterers to serve a three course meal. I’m joking yes? Well actually, no I’m not.
Although this was something of an exception to the more usual experience of unviersity staff rooms in the Nordic region, it was only a question of degree. By and large, most Nordic university staff rooms I’ve been in have been better furnished and equipped than their British counterparts. Space, light and well designed furniture are not seen as something only for the home, but also for workplaces as well.
Without falling prey to romanticising all things Nordic, I do wonder if there aren’t a couple of ideas we could usefully take from our academic cousins in the north.
How about introducing the Swedish notion of fika?
As I understand it, fika means time out for taking coffee/tea together – deliberately finding a common time and place together. Fika is not simply shutting out the usual everyday stresses and taking a moment for relaxation, not just taking a break from work routines and isolation. It is that, but it’s also a social occasion. Fika is gregarious time/space, it’s an interruption to the isolation of the daily routine. It’s a time when people come together. Fika is communal, it’s conversational.
Now maybe these kinds of social moments do exist in some British universities, and in some faculties. However, what I mostly see when I go around the country are badly furnished staff rooms, motley cups and posters with stern reminders about washing-up routines. Many academics eat lunch at their desks hunched over the email. I do this myself far too often. It’s no good. We need to fika far more often.
And what about the Danish hygge?
As I understand it, hygge is both physical and a state of mind. It’s about creating an atmosphere which is cozy, wam, convivial, comfortable, and which promotes intimacy and social interaction. Attention to the material environment creates an ambience in which one feels at home, secure, nurtured… For me, hygge is epitomised by that light filled staff room with candles and designer cups and serviettes. Hygge was the institution providing a human and humanising space for its staff.
To an English speaker, hygge sounds like hug and I think this is probably about as good a translation that someone like me can manage. I know it seems really dopey and fanciful, not to mention downright un-British, to be suggesting that it would be good if universities gave their staff a big hug everyday … but hold the scepticism. It might be a step that is worth taking. Given the continuous reports of over-working in universities and acrimonious relations between staff, it would be a positive symbolic and material gesture if fika and hygge became institutional priorities. Adopting fika and hygge might well promote well being, reduce illness and generally make us all more social and sociable. Who knows? While this is no substitute for more substantive structural change, employer attention to staff taking time out together might be a good thing. Some Nordic learnings and leanings may be just what we need.
I’m at work? Nu er det hyggeligt!