University staff losing offices fear ‘death of privacy’

Chester moves academics into communal working spaces, prompting union concerns about student meetings and equality impact

September 15, 2023
Close-up of sign on door saying 'Meeting in progress'
Source: iStock

Academics at the University of Chester have said efforts to replace their offices with communal working spaces will reduce their ability to hold confidential meetings with students and make their roles feel more precarious.

Staff in the English department were told to vacate individual offices over the summer and are being moved into an open-plan area in a newly refurbished building in the city centre, after a similar move for those who work in engineering.

Other departments are also anticipating having to leave offices in future, with staff complaining of uncertainty and a lack of consultation over the situation.

The university said the move reflected new ways of working across the higher education sector and it had created new social and teaching spaces by combining individual offices that it said were less well used post-pandemic. It said it was also making bookable spaces available for meetings.

But the University and College Union (UCU) branch has raised concerns over student welfare – given that they might need to speak to their tutors with no prior warning – and warned of an adverse effect on staff with additional needs. 

“The concern is that this represents a ‘death of privacy’,” said a Chester staff member, who declined to be named. “Staff appreciate having their own space so they can meet students away from colleagues. This is especially important when discussing confidential matters.

“Having your own space is also seen as being better for mental health as somewhere to retreat to having been lecturing all day.”

A UCU spokesperson said there were also worries about the impact on equality and diversity, citing the example of a hearing-aid user who might struggle to hear as well in a shared environment and neurodiverse staff who “face considerable challenges in not having a guaranteed or private space in which to work”. 

Staff who need special screens or chairs had also “been given no information about whether these will still be available”, UCU claimed, and it was not clear where academics would be able to store teaching materials they would usually keep in offices. Others were concerned about Covid and flu infection, which is on the rise again nationwide.

New flexible working arrangements and the rise of working from home post-pandemic have led to moves across higher education to eradicate academic offices, with other universities introducing surveillance measures to track staff office use with a view to making changes in future. 

“The new arrangement will make coming to campus feel more like a call centre in that it is very depersonalised and adds to the sense of being monitored,” said the staff member. “It undermines individuality and the autonomous nature of academics’ work.”

The loss of personal offices also increased the sense of precarity inherent in higher education, he claimed, because “changing the way people work has a knock-on effect on their roles”.

He added: “They will have less choice over how they approach their day-to-day work and feel they need to be seen on campus more by senior management.”

A spokesperson for Chester said: “The university is delivering on its programme of building developments and refurbishments that support new ways of working, as reflected across the higher education sector. For example, we have created new social learning and teaching spaces by combining individual offices, which have much lower usage since the pandemic.

“Our academics across varied disciplines make use of the newly refurbished bookable spaces for tutorials, staff meetings and individual or collaborative working. Numerous rooms are available for confidential meetings with students. Staff can book well-equipped spaces for extended periods if needing to work uninterrupted and reasonable adjustments have been successfully accommodated.

“We have long-term, flexible and display storage available and have worked with different subject academics to design solutions appropriate to their disciplines. Making better use of our built estate is essential if we are to improve our facilities and reduce our environmental footprint. We have found the majority of staff support our ambitions in this regard.”

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Reader's comments (9)

This is part of an appalling trend that seems to be creeping across the sector. Having an office is another one of the advantages of the job that made it worth the lack of bonuses and lower pay than industry. One by one, these have been removed and it is no wonder the last job advertised in my research group attracted no UK applicants from a total of 50. Without an office, common tasks such as looking at a student record are difficult since GDPR means that such things should not be done where someone could look over your shoulder. Research becomes harder (I worked in a commercial open plan office and my whole team had to go to another room for intense discussions). There is also the aspect highlighted in that there is nowhere to get away from things and think. Perhaps the idea is to drive staff to work at home but there is then no student experience that is worth the current fees.
Yep academia is not a career that anyone with a brain will want to go into: 1) Increased students numbers, more marking and also trying to pass ever weaker students 2) Real wage cuts 3) Reduced pension benefits 4) No office to think in 5) Having to spend your time in endless meetings with management that have no idea what they are talking about.
Offices are also a space for staff to have a good cry on the shoulder of their colleagues when things go really tough/are bereaved. They would value the privacy of an office for a private moment. Students too have panic attacks, want to share very personal and serious incidents with their tutor or chosen staff member. Should this really be witnessed and overhead by other staff in an open plan office? I don't get this privatisation thing sometimes.
My office was recently removed, though I noticed that a new administrator (not an academic) has one. Frankly universities have lost the plot.
Use them or lose them people! Most of my colleagues barely ever come to campus any more.
This is bullshit. If I end up getting treated like a private sector employee, I'm just go to the other sector and get paid like one. It's so cumbersome to need to book meeting spaces. I have meetings on line with co Authors, then need to have quiet to concentrate. I can't realistically plan this all in advance. Universities don't understand what they're doing here. They're relying on managers with no understanding of academics. They think of academics as being trapped and thus willing to take whatever conditions they impose. Maybe that's true in the short run. But as conditions like this erode, universities will have trouble attracting new faculty. There's a point at which uk universities will lose their reputation and there will be downward spiral of quality as staff and students stop coming.
This insidious move to open plan offices is going to come back to bite Management. If they start to encourage more staff on campus, but offer spaces that don't work, people aren't going to be happy. It's not a good pull to campus
So now all the academics come out bleating 'what about those with hearing problems?', 'what about the neurodivergent?', 'what about privacy?' They couldn't care less about those issues facing the non-academic staff who've had to work in those conditions for decades.
Just wait for the move to hot desks only, already happening at one institution on the south coast at least. Staff are just seen as (student) numbers now, not as professionals with multiple responsibilities and working practices.


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