Shared space - good for collaboration or too noisy?

Trend for less expensive open-plan offices is not always the best option, writes John Morgan

November 19, 2009

Academic workspace may seem a sedate topic for study, but in fact it is a troubled world in which researchers are driven to distraction by noisy professors and junior lecturers worry that modest surroundings lower their status in the eyes of their students.

Researchers from Loughborough University, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Leicester have recently concluded an 18-month study of the subject.

Their findings will be discussed at a conference, "Spaced out? Delivering effective academic workspaces", at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London on 19 November.

The researchers argue that despite significant investment in new academic work environments, there has been little debate about the type of offices scholars need.

Their study of 16 universities in the UK, Australia and the Netherlands highlights a growing trend towards open-plan spaces, intended to increase collaborative work.

But it concludes that while there are successful examples, institutions must involve academics in workspace design.

Simon Austin, professor of structural engineering at Loughborough, who led the study, said that the tough financial climate may influence future developments, with the lower cost of open-plan offices appealing to cash-strapped institutions more than ever.

"It would be fair to say that the majority of estates organisations, and I suspect most senior management, would take the same view - that open plan is cheaper than having some sort of enclosure within a space."

He added that as well as saving money on construction, "you may be able to get more people in".

However, Professor Austin cautioned universities against looking at costs in isolation. While open-plan approaches "have their place", he explained, academics need to concentrate and "most people can do that well only if they are in a quiet environment".

Recent developments cited by the study include Newcastle University's Devonshire and Paul O'Gorman buildings, Nottingham Trent's Chaucer Building and the University of Adelaide's 10 Pulteney Street refurbishment.

Open-plan offices are becoming a "hot topic", particularly in post-1992 universities, Professor Austin said.

While some academics interviewed approve of the increased sociability of open-plan offices and the opportunities for collaborative research, others are critical of the trend.

One interviewee says: "I have always shared with research fellows, and they are used to sharing offices.

"But professors who aren't used to sharing an office are particularly noisy ... holding loud telephone conversations and conversations with visitors at their desks."

A junior lecturer who shares an office adds: "I don't know whether the students (understand) ... that lecturers share offices. They probably think there must be something wrong - that (we're) not high enough in the faculty."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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