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.

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4 Comments on “Open plan universities?”

  1. John Flood Says:

    When Howard Davies was head of the Financial Services Authority (before becoming the Director of LSE) all offices were open plan including his, although he had around a quarter acre of space. So I would agree to open provided everyone, including the senior administrators such as vice chancellors, did the same. I suspect they would want to keep their own offices. I’m skeptical.

    Another way of looking at it is as a form of cost shifting. More academics would work at home in order to get privacy and the costs of heating, lighting, etc. are moved out of the university into the private home. I wonder if research grant overheads would be modified to take account of this. I’m skeptical again.

  2. Ultan Says:

    I would feel that it should not be done. I moved from an individual office to an open plan arrangement in the mid-nineties and I hated it. There was no privacy, no quiet time, no sense of boundary. To counter this, there was a lot of silliness with people flying red flags over their open plan desks for “quiet time” etc. I really couldn’t see the point of the arrangement as it detracted from productivity, and if you had people responsibility it was a complete insult to some anxious employee to be told to meet in some conference room or the canteen so that some privacy could be had to discussions. The fact that some people had offices, and some didn’t, and the allocation was on somewhat spurious grounds of title and position, rather than actual need didn’t help, of course.

    For 10 years or more after that I worked from an individual office, and things were much better from a communications and productivity point of view.

    I was forced to return to an open plan arrangement a few years ago and instead I opted to work from home – effectively from an office. The idea that I would put up a partition at home is as ludicrous as it is in an official work site.

    The situation with open plan in the IT industry at any rate is now totally undermined with people across partitions e-mailing each other – they might as well be in different offices (or countries for that matter). What offices there are in my local office are for the most part under-used, with ones belonging to VPs in darkness for weeks at a time (no, I don’t “work” for FAS.).

    As for the “call centre” remark – well, a slight whiff of snobbery, if not racism, there. Academics or other stagg would be better off campaigning against open plan on grounds of productivity, privacy, tutor matters, security of materials, and so on. Please God they won’t be so arrogant as to start on about “status” and “tenure”. One solution would be to possibly share offices in some cases, ‘though that can lead to some colourful dynamics too!

    The reality of the open plan situation of course is that its deployment is nothing to do with enhanced communications between “team members” at all – proponents are often guilty of lazy misreading of suspect evidence (which bizarrely invariably cites the words “Team players”, “Sweden” and “Volvo”), but rather it’s easily configurable setup that can be adapted (or totally removed) quickly to suit the best return on the investment on a neutral-use asset – the building itself. Plus the “furniture” can be moved from leasee to leasee as the market dictates.

    Have you ever noticed how the facilities or site manager of such deployments always sits in an OFFICE?

  3. chethan Says:

    Hi,

    I am working on personal space for academic staff as part of my academic programme. If anyone has their views on importance of personal space for academic staff can help me in providing your views, research reports and other sucess/failure stories.

    Thank you,

    Chethan

  4. Bruce Says:

    DIT is planning ‘open offices’ for its proposed Grangegorman campus. This has been opposed by disciplines characterised by ‘desk-based’ research, such as my school, the School of Social Sciences and Law. We have been told there will be ‘quiet areas’ where staff can conduct ‘desk-based’ research, and that there will be a phone booth where staff can make and receive phone calls. There will be meeting rooms where meetings with students can occur. Most staff believe this will be an unworkable arrangement (who would carry their books to a ‘quiet room’ for several hours of research and then return them to their desk – I’m not even sure if lecturers will have bookshelves). But it is likely to remain an open-office plan. It would be nice if the administration would admit this is being motivated by ‘cost consciousness’ and stop insulting our intelligence by claiming it will promote ‘synergies’ (how I’ve come to hate that word!) between staff in various disciplines. The plan offers an opportunity for a longitudinal study of the effects of an open plan office space – assuming the time-frame of the study was long enough! It’s hard to see Grangegorman moving with all deliberate speed.


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