Lecturers swap desks for 'flexible' future

Coventry trials virtual offices of webcams, laptops and shared filing cabinets, writes John Gill

June 5, 2008

Academics have never had standard 9-to-5 jobs, but until now a university post has at least tended to come with an office desk.

But that could change with a trial of "location-independent working" that suggests that a rootless future may await the academics of tomorrow.

The concept is being piloted at Coventry University, where 40 staff have volunteered to give up their offices for three months in return for a single drawer in a communal filing cabinet and a licence to roam.

The idea is credited with improving productivity and staff satisfaction while reducing stress and sickness absence.

Dina Shah, project manager, said: "It doesn't mean that academics will be at home all the time. It means that they can work from the lecture theatre and the library, and that they can work more intelligently.

"They can have all their files at hand and can do surgery hours over a wider range of times because they have a headset and webcam and other technologies enabling them to interact with their students.

"We have put in facilities around the university that have hot-desk facilities, as well as rooms for one-to-one sessions with students," she said.

The pilot, which has involved academics from across the university but has focused on the Department of Business, Environment and Society, has proved a success, according to university management.

"People have seen all sorts of benefits, from their work-life balance to satisfaction levels to innovation in teaching," Ms Shah said.

"An interesting point one person made was that, while academics were already sort of location independent, it was formalised under this scheme and so this person did not feel an obligation to be seen at the office at certain hours.

"The set-up allows academics to work more flexibly, and that improves productivity," said Ms Shah.

"It's a case of 'so far, so good'. When we're recruiting the next two cohorts, we'll find out what the knock-on effects of the early trials might be."

The pilot is being funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee, which runs the academic computer network.



As a lecturer juggling the dual demands of her students and her young family, Tina Bass jumped at the chance of getting involved in the trial of "location-independent working".

After several months of working without her own office, but freed from the shackles of feeling she had to show her face on campus every day, she has no regrets.

"Because I've got young children I've been sort of location-independent already, coming in later and working into the evenings.

But doing it officially "takes away the feeling that you have to show your face, even when you've been working 11 hours a day".

Ms Bass, a senior lecturer in business at Coventry University, said that interaction with her students had not suffered as she held regular sessions in an office with hot-desk facilities.

She said: "For some people the thought of losing their office would be quite overwhelming, but I can't see myself going back to mine."

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