Sharing the academic space

In the course of the past few days I have  come across three universities in these islands which have introduced or are planning to introduce open plan offices for academic staff. There have in the past been other reports – including this one in Times Higher Education – about such initiatives.

It is of course not just an issue of space planning on a campus; it is about understanding academic working methods, and seeing whether these can or should be adjusted in order to produce better results. Some argue that individual office space is vital for maintaining the right atmosphere for scholarship, and for privacy and confidentiality in meeting with students. Others argue that open plan arrangements prompt better interaction between groups of academics and allow easier accommodation for academics who do not need full-time space.

Actually, this is not solely an academic question. Research conducted at Cornell University shows that it is a complex issue in many other organisations also. Nevertheless, as higher education reform keeps turning up on the political agenda, an understanding of how the academic profession can best meet its objectives and what physical space works best for this would be helpful. Changing established working practices without such an understanding could undermine academic performance. On the other hand, it may well be that not every academic group would adopt the same view: it may depend on the nature of the work, the subject area, the existence or otherwise of integrated teams, and so forth. It is probably time for more analysis to be done on this topic.

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12 Comments on “Sharing the academic space”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Open plan or shared workspaces are pretty much the norm in Institutes of Technology, and in some cases the open plan offices are large and very busy indeed.

    There are a number of reasons why they don’t suit academic workplaces for either teaching or research purposes. Most obviously, they’re fairly noisy and distracting (even when everyone is doing their best to be quiet), so not only is research absolutely impossible in such a space, even writing a lecture or re-reading teaching materials is often impractical too. If one person’s phone rings, everyone is disturbed, and worst of all, with only one door, the steady stream of students looking for just one lecturer at a time disturbs everyone in the room every time.

    But then there are other difficulties involved in dealing with those students in such an office. You can’t bring a student into the office to talk about their essay etc etc, because that will distract 10 other people from their work: they may also see confidential documents such as marks on colleagues’ desks. So you end up having student consultations in corridors (the days when there might be an empty classroom nearby are long gone, now that every square inch of teaching space is under great pressure of use). This is bad enough if it’s just about their essay; if it involves confidential personal information, it’s a disaster, not to mention a law suit waiting to happen. This design of workspaces is one of the things I was most delighted to get away from when I moved to a university.

    • Perry Share Says:

      The notion that there has been any tradition of ‘design’ of workspaces in the ITs is a misnomer. Rather a space formula invented by the Dept of Education (and probably inherited from the British regime around 1892) has been imposed on the sector, and interpreted by builders on a least-cost basis. The realities of the academic workspace are the least important factor.

      Hopefully things might change as there are the glimmers of interest in the ‘learning landscape’. There might be more interest in how spaces are actually used, based on concepts derived from user-centred design. At IT Sligo for example, (some) students and academics were actively involved in the redesign of our new library. It has to be said that the outcome was quite different to what was there before and there seems to be universal satisfaction with what has emerged. Also, it appears that usage is up.

      So, there are ways to develop better teaching and learning spaces, but this requires a) attention to the research evidence on how to do it well and b) participation by all users in the design process.

      I would be surprised if the move to ‘open plan’ academic offices reflects the outcome of such a process – though I may be wrong!

  2. anna notaro Says:

    This might be entiely unrelated to the gist of the post, however I remember that when I first read the report in Times Higher Education, I was struck by the irony of the situation, of all *places* universities should be the least to regard *space* (there is a subtle distinction between the two terms I’m not addressing here)as a simple, empty container for working practices, given the vast amount of research conducted by historians, geographeres, sociologists, designers (to name only a few disciplines)with regards to its significance for political, social and cultural developments. It seems that this is another case when we should draw on our intellectual strenghts and contribute proactivly to the debate about the management of *our* working spaces, rather than simply accept passively choices made by somebody else..

  3. John Says:

    My university puts us three in a bed with only AHODs and Deans getting single occupancy. We coordinate our office hours to either avoid each other, or take the “hit” together.

    An academic colleague in the north of England recently moved to a new open plan building. Having an adequate office at home, he can now avoid going in at all costs. Implications for earlier debate on academic presenteeism perhaps?

    From my perspective sharing has been positive. I get advice from colleagues during my own office hours (when I’m stumped on regulations etc), I often get drawn into research-related discussion, and students enjoy the one-stop-shop nature of doing all of their “hey sirs” in one office!

  4. morungos Says:

    I wouldn’t assume that academic work is so very different from other knowledge-intensive work. I’ve worked in open-plan environments where a lovely quiet hum did help to open communications and share experiences between people. I have known academic corridors where people scarcely spoke and hid behind their doors. On the other hand, I have seen many academic estates departments try to pack far too many people into a small space, turning the buzz into a tense chaos. Open-plan can work well in an academic and research context, but to be successful, it cannot simply by approached as a matter of saving space/money, but with the primary goal of creating the best environment for quality work and interaction.

  5. Jeneen Says:

    I am an academic who worked at an institution that moved us to an open plan office space for all faculty from all departments from an open plan space for individual departments. I felt it went from bad to worse. Inevitably there are people who shout down phones, have discussions with students st the top of their voices and monitor people’s movements and activities. Needless to say I left that job and now have my own office and my quality of life, productivity and effectiveness at work has been greatly increased.

  6. Jon Says:

    I’ve worked in both open-plan and single-offices and I can’t say that my productivity was unduly influenced by either format. I can say that when I worked in a social science department the School paid an enormous amount of money on a brand new building so that it’s academics could have individual offices – of which 75% were empty on any working day. To my mind the academic ‘benefit’ of the offices were significantly offset by the mortgage.

  7. Disaffected humanist Says:

    It’s pretty clear that open plan offices for academic staff–especially in the humanities and social sciences–are a marker of a low grade institution: one that recruits lots of staff who aren’t real academics (because the institution offers lots of vocational training courses rebadged as degrees) and/or have low bargaining power (because of the oversupply of talent in traditional fields). In fact lots of post-1992 universities in the UK have open plan offices.

    Open plan office space is (i) a cost-cutting measure, (ii) a way to increase control of staff activities and (iii) a way of reinforcing managerial power structures, as typically ‘managers’ (glorified administrators) are given their own offices even when they are the people who need them the least, since they spend all their time chairing the useless meetings that ‘justify’ their existence.

  8. Jo McCafferty Says:

    My university is going to be moving us to a new open-plan building in the coming years. It has been met with strong opposition, certainly in our school, with the general feeling that no one is listening.
    I suggested a design charrette to allow everyone to have a constructive say, to no avail. I firmly believe form should follow function, not the other way around.
    I can see how some open-plan areas may be useful, but when a whole school becomes open-plan for no justifiable reason, I begin to worry; especially when a large portion of the work is done via distance-learning, requiring provision for soundproof areas for video-conferencing, recording etc. Positive constructive comments and suggestions appear to fall on deaf ears.
    We saw a set out example of what we will be moving to and I went and sat at an example desk area. Tiny space, and grey. I began to feel like an automaton, frankly!
    I’ve worked in open-plan in different roles and yes, it can work, – but the space was very carefully designed with a lot of care going into the sound and feel of the place, and with a lot of private areas and rooms should the need arise.

    Google Office anyone?

  9. Simon Austin Says:

    I have read the posts with interest and thought I should alert folks our research in an 18 month multi-disciplinary project supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) Leadership, Governance and Management Fund. The project was undertaken by Loughborough University, in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University and the University of Leicester.

    We aimed to develop a better understanding of how universities can provide more innovative, effective and enjoyable working environments for their academics and researchers. In doing so, we looked for lessons and good practice from across the UK higher education sector, universities overseas, other parts of the public sector and the private sector.

    The findings are reported at where you can download the report and access guidance and a gallery.

    We observed many of the tensions described in this discussion, particulary around balancing individual and group work tasks and the respective needs for concentration and dialogue. The situation is complex as each situation needs to be considered on its own merits and the inevitable conflicting demands.

    We have also just had a paper published in Facilities that compares open-plan and combi-office case studies ( We discuss the concept of a default location to understand better how to manage these conflicting demands.

    I hope this proves helpful to those wrestling with proposed changes in academic workspace. It can be a challenging time but there is clear evidence that the more users engage actively in the process the better the outcome.

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