Open plan universities?
I recently visited a university in the United Kingdom, and was interested to hear that they had introduced open plan offices and even ‘hot desking’ for some of the academic staff there. It is a move that would seem, I suspect, to be highly counter-intuitive to most academics. The traditional academic working environment is the single office cell, in which the individual keeps his or her books and papers, and where meetings with students can take place in a confidential setting.
The journal Times Higher Education first ran an article on this phenomenon in 2005, in which it referred to research that had been undertaken on it. Academic staff in universities where this new model was being tried out were interviewed, and invariably hostile; they felt that the environment in which they were being asked to work was ‘a little like being in a call centre’, and that it was ‘like moving from a grown-up atmosphere to a classroom atmosphere.’ The authors of the article concluded that for open plan arrangements to work in universities a whole new attitude to and etiquette for academic work would have to be adopted.
More recently the same journal took a closer look at an experiment with open plan arrangements in Sussex University. The intention behind this experiment was to see whether the office lay-out and use would encourage greater collaboration and interdisciplinarity; but the response of staff working there suggested ti did not achieve that effect.
I confess that I am personally highly sceptical as to whether open plan offices can be made to work in universities. I guess that all sorts of arguments could be used in favour of them, in theory; but in practice it simply goes so much against the grain of the traditional understanding of academic life that it simply wouldn’t work. On the other hand, we have to understand that, in many universities, space is now a very scarce resource, and if we are not about to knock down internal office walls we do need to have a better sense of how we can use space effectively and what kind of intellectual and pedagogical model we want our use of space to present.
I would vote with the existing type of arrangements; but would also suggest that universities have become lazy in organising the use of space, and that we need to get better at it, and that in order to do so we need to have a debate about how our use of space can best serve the academy’s and society’s needs.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.