This morning on Twitter I’m picking up a lot of tweets from the SEDA conference and many focus on ‘innovative’ campuses and the abolishment of staff office space. Open plan academic office spaces are also being discussed and inevitably working from home. As someone who’s spent the morning setting up a home office because I have to work at home for health reasons for the next few months, this twitter thread is quite thought provoking.
Whilst I have a decent capacity to adapt to changes to my working environment, any switch away from flexibility would probably adversely affect me. I like being in my single-occupancy office. It’s appropriate for getting certain quiet-time tasks done and allows me to escape from people when I need to. I couldn’t imagine recording screencasts, editing lecture recordings or dealing with confidential in a wide open space. It’s where people know to look for me. If I’m recording stuff, or doing something time-critical (or just stressed out my head and needing some peace), I’ll put up a do not disturb sign. I have, on only a couple of occasions, not made time for a student. And that’s irrespective of door open or door closed.
An open plan office sounds very challenging to how I currently work but I’ve worked in them in the past and you adapt. It wouldn’t be my first choice of working environment and it would make me think twice about moving to an institution that insisted on it.
I like being able to work from home when I have no obligations on campus. Working from home full time is going to be a challenge. As much as I like quiet productive time, I like people time as well. I do better at people time when I’ve had sufficient quiet productive time to feel prepared and that things are under control. The flexibility to do this makes me better face-to-face and when I hear of institutions that actively prohibit staff (or put barriers in their way) from this flexibility, that concerns me.
An office-less campus environment designed to allow staff and students to interact more frequently sounds very challenging indeed. I love sitting in social spaces on campus with a cup of tea and some reading and generally I welcome the informal conversations that arise in those moments. Some of the best bits about being an undergrad came when sitting in the common room of the chemistry department. Many institutions have consumed common spaces like those in the endless battle against space: they are the first to go but are often extremely valuable to the smooth functioning of departments. Informal conversations should be the life-blood of any productive team. If I went back to work and someone had created us a proper common room, I’d be very happy and would probably lurk there quite a bit. Removing staff offices and expecting staff and students to slog along together for the (naturally) limited number of work stations on campus would be horrible. I brought 6 bags of paperwork and textbooks home this week, things that I knew I needed for the remainder of the semester. As a student I struggled to carry my notes around for a day, I wouldn’t want to be a nomadic academic. The diversity of tasks I do in a day would prohibit working out of a backpack.
Ultimately I’d argue that it’s far more effective to provide social spaces in every academic building than orchestrate elaborate ways of forcing staff to interact. And if those social spaces are also open and welcoming to students, so much the better. It’s also much more respectful of the needs of a diverse workforce and the range of tasks undertaken by academics. Building designers need to incorporate these spaces into designs, and estates need to safeguard them against future development in to more offices, labs or store cupboards.