Open-plan risk to collegiality

March 16, 2007

Sussex University's £10 million Freeman Centre was meant to be a model for collaborative research but has prompted bitter in-fighting. Phil Baty reports

Its gleaming open-plan office spaces were meant to "set a new standard for others to follow in the creation of collaborative and innovative research environments".

But Sussex University's £10 million Freeman Centre, which has helped to inspire a growing national trend to do away with academics' private studies, appears to have heralded a collapse of collegiality at one of the world's leading centres for science policy research.

Bitter in-fighting at Sussex University's Science and Technology Policy Research unit (SPRU), revealed in documents leaked to The Times Higher , has raised wider questions about the national effects of a move towards what critics describe as "call centre" working environments.

The documents show that the building's open-plan offices have been blamed for a series of problems at SPRU, ranging from a row over snooping to a ban on using the telephone after complaints of noisy conversations.

"Aside from the obvious problems for studious academics needing private space for research, there is a growing amount of health and safety research that shows that open-plan offices can be stressful environments," said Roger Kline, head of employment at the University and College Union. "But universities like them because they make more efficient use of space. This issue has to be thought about very carefully."

The Freeman Centre was opened to great fanfare in November 2003 by Lord Sainsbury, Science Minister at that time. It houses the SPRU and Brighton University's Centre for Research in Innovation Management, and has about 60 researchers and 200 postgraduates.

When it was being built in 2002, Ben Martin, SPRU director at that time, said: "We expect the Freeman Centre to set a new standard for others to follow in the creation of collaborative and innovative research environments."

But as early as November 2004, the Association of University Teachers, now the UCU, was raising concerns. In a document presented to management, the union argued that "the open-plan office is just not suitable for academics".

The document notes "noise distraction" and a "lack of privacy", and warns:

"The argument that open-plan offices enable easier intellectual interaction between colleagues is exploded by the protocol of having to keep silent so as not to disturb colleagues.

"The money saved from cramming staff into a call centre-type environment is more than offset by the destruction of a collegial, stimulating environment."

Last month, the tensions came to a head. Lecturer Allam Ahmed wrote a furious e-mail to his SPRU colleagues about "an extremely serious incident"

- involving colleagues "examining confidential documents that were meant solely for me".

"Given the serious lack of trust and collegiality within the SPRU, exacerbated by the open-plan environment, my advice to colleagues is to be on your guard and not leave sensitive documents and materials on your desk," he said.

Dr Ahmed declined to comment this week, explaining that the university was investigating his complaints. But it is understood that the documents he referred to involved material relating to potentially lucrative consultancy work, where colleagues may have been in competition with him.

Further problems were revealed in an e-mail to all SPRU staff last week.

Carole Morse, directorate office management of the Freeman Centre, complains that "long and loud telephone calls are causing distress to others as they interrupt their work and concentration". All staff should leave their desk to use the phone, she writes.

A Sussex spokesman declined to comment on Dr Ahmed's concerns, but said:

"The Freeman Centre was designed and built in consultation with the staff involved, and the planning included a mix of open-plan space expressly to support collaborative working. The building has, on the whole, been positively received since it was opened in 2003."

She added that the university was aware "the space works better for some colleagues than for others", and the use of space across the university was under "active review" to ensure continued support for academic work.


* Open-plan offices suggest that academics can no longer be trusted to work alone, according to research presented to the British Educational Research Association annual conference in 2005.

The work, by Valerie Hey of Brunel University, reported that staff in open-plan offices felt that they were working in a "call centre"

and that they were working in "Ikea university", with birch-veneer environments as opposed to the traditional wood-panelled ideal

* Last year, estates managers set up the so-called white-glove test - their technique for checking whether academics are using bookshelves in their offices and, by default, whether they need an office of their own

* Kilner Planning, consultant to the Association of University Directors of Estates, said last year that there was a growing interest in exploring open-plan offices among estates managers

* Mike Thorne, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, set an example by sharing his office with four other members of senior staff. "We think the future lies in open plan offices," said his office-mate, finance director Richard Allanch

* According to the Health and Safety Executive, open-plan offices with more than ten work stations have been cited as a possible "risk factor" in sick building syndrome.

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