Go open plan to open hearts and minds

Existing office set-up is outdated, v-c argues

May 30, 2013

Academics should be moved out of their offices into open-plan areas to promote interaction between staff, administrators and students, a vice- chancellor has argued.

Julius Weinberg, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said the current system of giving lecturers their own “cubby holes” stopped staff from mingling, which restricted the opportunities for them to link up for research projects.

Speaking at a leadership in higher education workshop held at the University of Oxford, Professor Weinberg said that the office set-up at most universities was outdated and made academics seem remote and inaccessible to students.

“I walk around my university and I see rows and rows of doors that are shut,” Professor Weinberg told delegates on 23 May. “I see signs saying: ‘I will be here on Wednesday from this time to this time.’ What sort of a message is that sending out to our students?”

He added that academics should embrace the open-plan offices seen in “information-rich environments” such as start-up companies, where shared office space enabled conversations between members of staff.

“Teachers love to work in rooms lined with books but I challenge the view that we need to have offices,” he said. “It is built into our psyche around the idea of the professor. We all imagine that day when we have our own office with our name on the door…but we have to ask if we have got this right.”

Professor Weinberg said he was keen to move to an open-plan office himself but had been advised by his administration team that having his own office was helpful. However, he added, he spent most of his time outside it in any case.

He added that he would prefer to spend money earmarked for office refurbishment on creating more coffee shops and communal areas to encourage staff to talk to each other.

Vice-chancellors should challenge orthodox thinking within their universities, rather than simply oversee the smooth administration of their institutions, he also argued.

“An interesting role of the chief executive is to go into opposition against their own bureaucracy,” Professor Weinberg said.


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Reader's comments (13)

Once again, a v-c proposes something that would not apply to him (it is a complete cop-out to say his administrators advised him not to do that - isn't he supposedly in charge?). If most universities had not done away with staff common rooms, there would be much more "mingling" amongst staff, but open-plan offices are not the answer here. The pastoral needs of students and the confidential nature of some of the issues that are raised require spaces that can be private.
And what of the private conversations we sometimes need to have with students? Many times I've had tutees knock on my office door out of the blue to tell me something they're obviously upset about. Similarly, those of us with research groups need to be able to sit down with post-grads and post-docs; this sometimes means that pressure needs to be applied if they're not performing, similarly they may have something personal they wish to tell me. If University management want academics to mingle with each other more, they need to give us the time to do some mingling!
Really, amazingly, stupid. It seems that this v-c has no clue about what it is we do, or the needs of our students. Here are just a few reasons why this is an incredibly poor idea: 1) We need to secure our belongings and, more importantly, student work and information 2) Students might want a bit of privacy when speaking to faculty. I leave my door open or ajar when speaking to students in my office, but it's important that students not feel everyone can hear their business. 3) We move about during the day, between lectures/seminars, meetings, etc. Does the v-c really want us to waste time putting away/locking up all of our current projects each time we leave the room? 4) Teaching-oriented work, like reading, marking, and writing lectures, (not to mention THINKING) requires concentration. For most of us, that means uninterrupted blocks of time AND relative quiet. We don't collaborate on these things, because normally, few members of most departments, especially in the humanities, are teaching the same topics. When we do want to collaborate, we find places to do so, and try not to disturb our colleagues. Not surprisingly, our best students also find that they can read and write best when they are not constantly interrupted. 5) Our research also requires similar conditions -- thank goodness that we are often required to work in libraries! 6) Many academics are introverts. Lecturing and facilitating seminars can be exhausting. Our offices provide us with space to re-charge while moving on to the next task. 7) There are much better solutions than open plans for a problem (real or perceived) of faculty not being available enough to students. Requiring X number of office hours or days on campus is the most obvious. 8) Closed doors =/= inaccessibility. We close the doors to our homes, after all. Knocking is generally a good way to get a door to open. Setting an appointment is another. Some of us even have notes on our doors reminding students that they are welcome to check if we are in, especially during office hours. Some of us even let our students know that they can knock on the door at other times -- or when they should not knock, because we are busy. This is all useful social practice. 9) Students may not be looking for us in our offices anyway. Usually they speak to us before or after class, or send emails. Many faculty also use instant messaging. Students, especially those with busy schedules, often find it more convenient to contact us via those methods, especially when they have quick questions. In the end, it depends on what administrators want from faculty. If they want good teaching and faculty to do well with the REF, however, putting faculty into open plan offices is about the most counterproductive way of doing it imaginable.
I fully agree with everything said so far! Just as a matter of interest; given he said "Teachers love to work in rooms lined with books " - where does he think we should keep them? OK, I don't read mine all the time, but I often get one to show a student something, or to give them a few to look at, so they can decide which best suits their way of learning - before they buy one.
This has been tried at my Russell Group University business school. The results however have not been good. Staff choose to work at home as much as they can which means they are even less accessible to students and/or each other. So much for student experience or collegiality. Students don't have access to the open plan for security and confidentiality reasons so lecturers can only be met by appointment in a formal meeting room setting. No more informal chats with staff or knocking on their doors! It also contradicts our research culture as I doubt many papers are written in the open plan. Curiously, managers have managed to keep offices while your average academics have been squeezed into rooms with 25 desks.
How many of these private conversations with students really take place? I was a fairly engaged English Literature student and can only remember a handful of talks with lecturers outside class time, most happening immediately after a tutorial. Weinberg's plan might also help young lecturers in their first jobs who are sometimes totally cut off from their dept, save for the odd visit to dept office
I teach English Literature; the advantage of the 'room lined with books' that the VC refers to so disparagingly is that you can consult them, show them to students, even lend them. Yesterday in a class a student asked about readings of Eliot's The Waste Land from a particular point of view, and I was able to lend him a book; couldn't have done that under Kingston's proposed arrangement.
I am delighted that a few comments in a question session at the end of a discussion of University strategy should have produced the piece in the THES – at least it shows the role of the VC in “going into opposition” as a way of provoking thought and challenging received wisdom. Academic debate, I love it, courteous, reflective, drawing upon broad evidence and experience and never personalising... To Michael (30 May 11.45): I have worked in open plan and would do so again. You seem to favour the model of the VC as “being in charge”, driving through what they want without listening to others and taking into consideration issues of cost, building adaptation etc. I do not favour that model. I agree that we need to construct more common and mingling spaces (and times). To Simon (11.59) As a physician I am fully aware of the need for confidential and emotionally difficult conversations, and that one can have them without one’s own office. A function (access to private space)can be delivered in a number of ways. Many information rich, research based organisations work without the large number of dedicated offices Universities have. To Julie (12.25) I may be clueless, but I do try to inform myself by looking at alternative ways of achieving desired outcomes. I think you will find that most senior academic managers in Universities have a good idea of what academics do. Many of us still learn, teach and research. There are many solutions, other than academics having their own private monk's cell that address your 1) -5). There are varieties of solution and “open plan” does not necessarily mean spaces configured like call centres. I know of one academic department which moved, against resistance into good open plan, as a temporary measure. When they moved again 2 years later the demand was that they stayed in open plan because it had been a positive experience. Your 6) – 12) are all issues that need to be debated and about which there is little good evidence and a lot of assertion. Good academics operate good systems anywhere. I see too many doors in institutions which make students feel unwanted. To Emmadw ( 2.43). Most of the books should be in Departmental Libraries, or in the University Library so that the maximum benefit can be got from them. Whenever I look at shelves I get the impression that the prime function of the books is as highbrow wallpaper! Good open plan can have bookshelves, that way the knowledge gets shared more widely. To Anonymous Business Academic (31 May 8.35) Yes you can produce bad open plan and poor access practices. As academics we should be looking for solutions and better ways of working. Solutions to problems such as providing better access for students to academic staff. In the world of the MOOC and Wikipedia the University provides context for facts and access to academics. Problems such as getting people to work together and develop innovative research. The University is no longer distinguished by access to literature, the articles and content are available on-line. It is distinguished by access to people with knowledge. So we should make them accessible to one another. Problems such as wasting money by providing lots of space that is usually empty – look at any University metric on the use of office space. The money could be spent on PhD students,or a bigger office for the VC ( :-) , just in case you cannot spot irony) As academics we should try to argue from an informed position – so I provide some thought provoking articles below. You will see that these can all be read as being against open-plan, so I am not cherry picking supportive literature. Unfortunately they lump together diverse environments from small group offices to call-centre designs. Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices, Alena Maher, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.05.002 A model of satisfaction with open-plan office conditions: COPE field findings Jennifer A. Veitch , et al http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.04.002 Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments? A review VG Oommen, M Knowles, I Zhao - Asia Pacific Journal of Health http://lapa.co.nz/assets/NewsAttachments/openplanofficeszengine.pdf
I don't disagree that long corridors with closed doors is not exactly a terribly inviting environment for staff/staff or staff/student mingling. However, I don't believe forcing academics into open plan is the answer. Much academic work is, after all, individualistic and we are primarily rewarded on an individual basis. How does it work in open plan in Monday am is my paper writing window, while Joe at the next desk is using the time to meet his tutees? Paper writing in particular is normally a solitary endeavour. I think the Scandinavian inspired 'combi office' is probably the best compromise. Under this system, individuals get small 'cells' which are good for when the pressure is on, and one needs to retreat and finish writing that grant, revising that paper etc. A place to call their own and store their books and papers. Such offices are also big enough to accommodate 1:1 meetings with staff and students without causing any disturbance. On the other hand, the relatively modest and utilitarian nature of these offices invariably encourages staff to leave their 'cubby-hole' when the cabin fever sets in, and to explore and utilise communal and social areas in the building for informal meetings, coffees, and catching up. Very small offices mean facilities managers save space and money, academics still have place to work in peace in quiet and to meet students. It's a win-win. I've seen this model used to great effect in one UK University. It seemed like a sensible compromise between space utilisation and an environment conducive to academic work. Incidentally, another interesting article on this very topic: Baldry, Chris, and Alison Barnes. "The open-plan academy: space, control and the undermining of professional identity." Work, Employment & Society 26.2 (2012): 228-245.
Julius, Thank you for your comments. It shouldn't be a question of student funding *or* office space, though. Smaller offices, as Business Academic suggests, might be a better option. Other posters have brought up some very good points to add to mine, so I won't repeat them. However, I will repeat that there are many other ways to address concerns about students feeling faculty aren't available. It also strikes me that there are many faculty who are able to do that no matter where you put them. My office door is usually closed, but there's a sign inviting people to knock (and telling them when I absolutely am not available). My students, other faculty, administrative assistants, and occasionally complete strangers knock as they need to. My students will contact me online via google chat in the evenings, when I am online; in fact, students have commented that I am sometimes *too* available (usually after they've had a reply to a panicky email on a Sunday night). I have colleagues who are in their offices 2-3 days a week, colleagues who may not post (or keep) their office hours, and colleagues who work with their doors open, yet manage to convey that they are far too busy to speak with students. When faculty wish to work together, or with groups of students, we use a conference room/library where the students also work. Since my books are my own, and I choose not to have them wander off in someone else's possession. My university's library certainly doesn't have the budget to buy them. I'm all for making students feel more welcome, but having worked in many different office set-ups in both academia and industry, I am unconvinced that moving to an open plan would solve that issue, and think it would create more problems in the long run. Again, it depends on the outcome you desire. That outcome is not all that clear to me in what you've written.
@Julius - like Julie, most of the book I have in my office I've bought. . So, reluctant to put them in a shared area that, when I want them, they might not be there. If I get a newer edition I'll then often put the earlier one in the student common room, especially if there hasn't been that much updating (ditto to technical magazines that I get; the students get them when the next one comes).
Zane; clearly I don't know the exact situation, but I've tended to find that it's the less engaged students who are more likely to see lecturers out & want to have private conversations with them, often to discuss why they've found engaging difficult and to have help getting back. The engaged ones, I agree, don't need that level of support, so often mayn't be aware of it. I certainly wasn't as a student :)
I am at a big and prestigious university that now has a policy of open plan for everybody below Associate Professor. As you can see, we are quite hierarchical - this is almost the worst way of doing things, although the incentive system is that you you earn your office by being promoted. It is a failiure though - 1) people stay at home 2) noise, despite having award-winning architects on campus 3) people like their stuff, modest as it can be these days. As a director i was constantly finding ways to keep offices rather than have the administration turn them into open plan - we had people hard of hearing, people seeing students 2-3 hours a day, and so-on - everybody had a reason they needed an office and good on them. You can't get around the fact that people differ. My door is open and I wander about, and let grad students use my space. Others are more isolationist. One tip-Our department diverted some money and bought an expresso machine, and people cluster there. Many a project has been hatched at that table. But they have all been written by people later concentrating hard with no distractions, somwhere else. By the way, our campus has masses of meeting spaces with different setups, all wired and quite comfortable, mostly occupied by students doing their work and with break out rooms for small groups too. Personally I think we have gone far enough.

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