By way of an introduction

My name is Rob Fitzpatrick and I am conducting doctoral research at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust/University of East London into the subject of emotional attachment to place and emotional containment in ‘agile’ work environments. In this blog I will explore thoughts, ideas and images as they emerge in my research, to support discussion around what I feel to be an important but often unspoken aspect of contemporary social experience.

‘Agile’ workplaces, where facilities are configured flexibly to support activity in organisations hold a near-ubiquitous presence in modern life. Assisted by access to the internet and wireless IT, and combining non-proprietorial use of space and resources with ‘porosity’ between experience in public, private and professional contexts, a new model for working has been created which effectively challenges earlier held assumptions about an automatic linkage of work with place.

In my research, I wish to explore and understand better how our emotional attachment to place is constructed in this new environment for work. How are our feelings towards the ‘agile’ workplace formed and articulated, and do they differ substantively from the experience of work in more traditional ‘cellular’ office environments? Crucially, I wish to investigate whether agile workplaces can facilitate emotional ‘containment’, and if so when and how. Here, containment refers to a concept developed by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion to describe the capacity, either individually or in groups, to tolerate difficult emotional experiences and to convert these into thought. In effect, I am interested in exploring the capacity of the agile workplace to facilitate thinking.

The name of this blog – ‘topoanalytic’ – is derived from ‘topoanalysis’, a term coined by the mid twentieth century French phenomenological philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1958) to represent the systematic study of the subjective and imaginative experience of domestic space. Since first reading this book over twenty-five years ago, I have been captivated and fascinated by its presentation of ‘home’ as a site of daydreams – a place where hidden meaning, associations and emotional attachments combine, as if by magic, to form and give life to the very ‘fabric’ of a loved house, flat, room or personal object. With my research, I am also interested (at least in part) to explore how Bachelard’s concept of topoanalysis might be usefully applied, to our experience of the ‘agile’ spaces and places we occupy in the contemporary workplace.

While a place of work is not a home, it does at some level represent a site of dwelling, where from a psychoanalytic perspective, in addition to conscious and manifest experience, hidden unconscious thoughts and phantasies can operate both individually and collectively, shaping organisational life in often unperceived ways. What therefore might we learn about ourselves, the places we work and the society we live in from seeking to listen to the ‘hidden’ experience of the agile workplace? To what extent are agile work environments the physical manifestation of ‘failed’ emotional containment within contemporary society, or can a new, emergent form of emotional relatedness be also evidenced? Further, to what extent do agile work environments influence emotions and experience of physical containment or exposure, contentment or grievance, comfort or discomfort, uncanniness or homeliness, attentiveness or reverie, and connectedness or isolation?

To help answer these questions, I am devising a technique informed by the psychoanalytically-informed practice of social dreaming, the ‘social photo matrix’ focus group, and over the next year or so, will use this method, as well as 1-1 interviews to record the emotional experiences that individuals and groups hold of  their agile workplaces. I look forward to updating this blog as my learning develops.

12 July 2017