The open-plan office gives 'infantilised' staff the blues

September 16, 2005

The growing trend of turfing academics out of private offices and into open-plan rooms with a call-centre ambience could seriously damage their sense of worth and their concentration, according to research.

Valerie Hey, deputy head of the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University, and Simon Bradford, a senior lecturer in the school, will present a paper on challenges to academic identity at the British Educational Research Association annual conference this week.

The researchers warn that open-plan offices packed with desks send a damaging message to academics - suggesting that they can no longer be trusted to work alone. Professor Hey said: "You imagine an academic's room as the Oxbridge, monastic, wood-panelled ideal. Increasingly that doesn't exist."

Academics interviewed about their new "birch-veneer" environments described them as similar to an "Ikea or Habitat university", with "not really desks but more like work stations in, say, an insurance office". They added that is was "a little like being in a call centre".

Professor Hey said that there were often sound economic arguments behind such change, which universities found hard to resist. But she added: "I'm interested in what this implies about how they see their staff. It is about infantilisation - it is like moving from a grown-up atmosphere to a classroom atmosphere."

One academic who had been moved into such an environment told them: "It's stylish but inappropriate. We've been dropped into an inappropriate space - we are square pegs in round holes." The paper also warns that if an academic's life is lived constantly in public, he or she has no space to write and think.

The two researchers warn that a new kind of office etiquette - embracing issues such as talking on mobile phones - will need to be devised to make these environments more workable.

The researchers also argue that the push towards more business-like universities has also had a profound impact on the lives of academics.

Professor Hey said: "Our argument is that academics have become managers.

We have to manage ourselves to become these paragons of superproductivity.

We have to be excellent at everything - teaching, research and administration."

Professor Hey acknowledged that tackling new problems could produce a new collegiality among staff.

She said: "The moment you get a Quality Assurance Agency inspection everyone rallies round. There is a sense that we are all in it together."

But she said that such "defensive collegiality" should not be assumed to be positive. "It can be a bonding experience but the issue is not necessarily one you would choose to bond over," she said.

Instead the researchers warn that real collegiality is under threat as competition for jobs and grants hots up in institutions.

Professor Hey said: "It is a winner-takes-all environment."

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