Leader: Open plan or open warfare?

March 16, 2007

In an era when the chief executive of British Airways goes into the office and looks for somewhere to sit - having no office or desk to call his own - academics have held out longer than most for the private space that they insist is essential for creative concentration. Their resistance to open-plan working is certain to be boosted by developments at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, perhaps Britain's largest collection of experts on the interaction between humans and technology. Critics say that SPRU's Freeman Building - shared with Brighton University - is no place for creative research. It is impossible, say the dissatisfied, to keep confidential documents out of the view of others, or to get work done to the sound of their phone calls.

Many professionals, however, ranging from newspaper reporters to millionaire city types, manage to concentrate on tricky jobs despite working in hubbub. So do many senior civil servants. But the objectors are right to say that closeness does not guarantee collaboration or cohesion.

The way to get people to work together is via properly planned methods such as seminars and joint meetings, not enforced proximity. Even the awayday trips dreaded by middle managers across the land have their place. They can encourage both corporate solidarity and valuable new collaborations. The opposite approach, putting people together in the hope that joint projects will emerge, is likely to cause more resentment than achievement.

Successful open-plan offices have space for private meetings and tricky work, and for tasks such as awkward meetings, perhaps with students under supervision, that really cannot be held in public. But university departments never have enough space. Open-plan working has been adopted in most other areas of the economy and is bound to be part of the solution at universities. What academics do deserve is a space that allows them to congregate with colleagues socially, free from importunate advances from students and managers. Whatever happened to senior common rooms?

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