Say goodbye to the office

September 28, 2007

Coventry University is pioneering 'no desk' contracts while Nottingham Trent's move to open-plan working sparks complaints. Tony Tysome and Tariq Tahir report

Coventry University is pioneering a flexible working scheme in which academics agree to give up their permanent university desks and offices in return for contracts allowing them to work on the move or from home, coffee shops and bistros.

The voluntary scheme is to be piloted for two years by the university's Business and Environment School and is backed by £250,000 from the Joint Information Systems Committee, which is hoping that other universities will consider similar moves.

The initiative emerged last week as Nottingham Trent University became the latest institution to prompt protests from its staff by moving them out of private offices and into open-plan ones, sparking further debate about the best environment for academic work.

At Coventry, staff who work flexibly will be provided with all the technological trappings of a home office and the equipment needed to work on the move, including laptops and mobile phones with internet access.

They will be permitted to work almost anywhere, according to Tim Luft, programme director for Coventry University Enterprises. David Morris, Coventry's director of e-learning, said that staff taking the flexible option would have to give up their permanent office on campus, which could present a major challenge.

"The big question is how much we can persuade academics not to have their cake and eat it. Are they prepared to benefit from flexible work but also give up their treasured offices and desks?"

At Nottingham Trent, staff representatives have complained that a recent move to open-plan offices compromises their ability to do their jobs.

A spokesperson for the local branch of the University and College Union said: "We have raised this issue with the university. It is in the interest of staff, students and the employer that staff are provided with office accommodation that best suits the duties they are engaged to perform."

In an exchange of e-mails seen by The Times Higher , one staff member wrote: "It is impossible to think, write, exchange ideas here. Thinking and writing has to be done at home or while travelling to/from work. It is noisy and any discussion interrupts other staff."

A spokesman for the university said it was undertaking "an ambitious £130 million regeneration programme to create a more inspiring working environment. A number of employees are being temporarily relocated to new premises where there is some open-plan accommodation.

"Where possible, modifications have been made in response to staff preferences."

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