Hot desks ‘must go’ from post-Covid campuses, says deputy v-c

While the pandemic may force an end to open-plan academic spaces, Australian forum hears that ‘empty glass boxes’ are not the answer

November 10, 2020
hot desks open plan office workers busy
Source: iStock

Post-Covid virus consciousness may spell the end of open-plan university buildings, but that does not mean a return to the “empty glass boxes” of the past, an Australian forum has heard.

Australian Catholic University (ACU) deputy vice-chancellor Stephen Weller said the needs of students and staff would dovetail with Covid-induced sanitary imperatives and cost pressures to force a rethink of campus spaces. “Open plan, the hot desk and the non-collaborative cubicle all need to die,” he told the Remaking HE conference. “We have to kill all three of those antiquated features of building design.”

Dr Weller said many campus workstations were unsuitable for winter flus, let alone a pandemic. And hot desks were no longer feasible, no matter how economical or “exciting” the notion seemed. “I turn up and I can sit at a desk that’s got a great view – but I don’t know who’s been sitting here or whether they had Covid. Those things need to fundamentally change,” he said.

Melbourne architect Kristen Whittle said ideas such as hot desks had been driven by “Excel spreadsheets” rather than human behaviour. “The whole thing was a con – it doesn’t work,” he told the conference.

“We were dropped into highly dense environments where we had a loss of personal space. Belongings were stripped away from our lives, in theory to allow for more mobility. You can’t do that.”

But Dr Weller said rarely used 10 square metre offices were equally impractical, particularly in an era of Covid-induced austerity. “Notwithstanding that we’ve moved to trimesters [and] more teaching time, the bulk of our activity has traditionally been for six months of the year, five days a week,” he said.

He said education ministers from “both side of politics” had made it clear that there would be little funding for buildings that were “only occupied half the time”. Universities could not expect a continuation of past levels of capital investment, so they must “challenge” current building usage.

“We [must] think about both design principles and engagement principles. The tiered lecture theatre is a classic example.”

Dr Weller said staff, like students, were hungry for social contact. Academics would return to campus, at least some of the time, for “the water-cooler moment, the shared coffee, the collaboration”.

But post-Covid universities should focus on “open space” rather than open plan, he said. Staff must “have their own space when they need it, bookable space [for] private [meetings] and collaborative space with technology…that allows people to come together”.

Covid was an opportunity for administrators to “pause” and revisit past practices, he said. “We’ve all been to campuses where there are lots of empty glass boxes that don’t deal well with multidisciplinary academia.”

Dr Weller said that as well as opening up internally, universities must open more consciously to the communities around them. While very few campuses were surrounded by fences, locals still felt that they needed permission to enter. “We need to be clear that it’s not an implied fence.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The article does not seem to offer any solution. "Staff must have their own space when they need it" likely to mean "no own space for staff" in practice, at least in most universities. Dr Weller condemns hot desks as covid-insecure, which is true. But four paragraphs later, he suggests that "universities should focus on open space”, which is all shared. He now praises spaces which allow "people to come together", without any concern about covid and flus. This does not make sense to me.
Yes indeed 'open plan' offices need to die, the whole idea of them comes from the need for the 'overseer's' to be able to 'see and control' their minions, much like (in)Human Resources departments these ideas came from mainly US business schools.

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