Office size shows who measures up

February 12, 2009

The evolution of academic work space, a key status symbol, is being investigated. John Gill reports

They may not have the executive salaries, company cars or expense accounts of high-flyers in other sectors, but academics have their offices, and the bigger they are, the better.

Jennifer Parkin, who is carrying out research into academic work spaces, said: "It's not unheard of to see people measuring who has got the biggest office, because as an academic you don't get the status symbols associated with other professions. The size of your office can be a big deal."

Dr Parkin, a psychology research fellow at Nottingham Trent University, is examining the evolution of university work space, which has seen academics moving from "monastic cells" into open-plan offices.

The 18-month project, which is backed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, also involves researchers at Loughborough and Leicester universities, who are pooling expertise in psychology, estates management and architecture.

Dr Parkin said: "In the past, academics focused on individual work - in some ways they were almost self-employed. Now there's much more emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

"I think the term 'open plan' can be scary; you automatically think of vast call centres, but some new open offices aren't like that at all."

As examples of innovative office design, she cited The Open University's recently completed Jennie Lee Building and the Devonshire Building at Newcastle University.

However, attempts to move academics into open-plan spaces have not always met with success, as was the case a few years ago at the University of Sussex.

The university hoped its £10 million Freeman Centre would "set a new standard for others to follow in the creation of collaborative and innovative research environments".

Instead, internal documents leaked to Times Higher Education suggested that the new environment led to infighting, with problems ranging from a row over snooping to a ban on using the telephone after complaints about noise.

A document presented to Sussex management by the Association of University Teachers, now the University and College Union, said: "The money saved from cramming staff into a call centre-type environment is more than offset by the destruction of a collegial environment."

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