Leader: Mavericks won't be corralled

Academics chafe at being forced into open-plan offices, often with good reason. Can their home-working solutions be supported?

May 13, 2010

The battle for office may have been at the forefront of our minds this week, but what about that other fight, no less fiercely contested but arguably more important: the battle for office space.

Can any of the party leaders really work together? One way to have found out would have been to have thrown them with their special advisers into an open-plan office that had all the charm of a call centre. If they could contemplate policies with the diligence they have shown in avoiding talk of higher education in the election run-up and collaborate amid the chaos, they would have a jolly good chance of being able to run the country together.

The practice of giving academics their own dusty book-lined offices and a common room where they could meet with colleagues has in recent years given way to a shiny, decluttered workplace free-for-all. The pros are easy to marshal: open-plan offices are cheaper to build and to heat, therefore they are greener, and they encourage the sharing of ideas. This last benefit would be an easier sell if the hierarchy mucked in too. In the commercial world, managers do coexist in open spaces, but in academia senior managers from the vice-chancellor down to the deans are still to be found ensconced in their offices in blissful, thoughtful and undisturbed solitude.

On the downside, open-plan offices are noisy, irritating, spread germs and are difficult environments in which to concentrate. What it comes down to is simple: collaborative working versus contemplative solitude and privacy.

With so many different forms of communication available to today's scholars, how important is it to be with colleagues all the time? Suining Ding, an associate professor of interior design at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, examined 30 years of studies into open-plan spaces. Her paper, published in the journal Facilities, finds that open plan "only minimally facilitates communications and does so at the expense of privacy". Lack of privacy, she points out, still exists as an unsolved negative aspect.

This perceived removal of privacy is one reason why many academics increasingly work from home. In our cover story, Steve Dickson, director of facilities management at the University of Liverpool, sees a move to more open-plan accommodation within universities and towards more home-working, although, he says, "we have to go forward on this in a planned way, so offices are not used just one day a week". It's certainly laudable to make university space as cost-effective as possible - but not at the employees' expense. If the full economic costs of using an academic's house as a personal office were factored in, how cheap would open-plan spaces really be?

And the costs to staff's mental health merit serious consideration. A large-scale review of literature by Vinesh Oommen, a researcher in the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University of Technology, found that in 90 per cent of research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with such an environment causing high levels of stress and conflict and elevated blood pressure.

The model of the open-plan office serving as the old common room and the academic's own house as the office may just have to be the way forward. As one scholar says of working from home: "At least I had a door I could shut."


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