Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The University Environment: Open Plan, Not Working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)
(Kevin Trotman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)
by , The Research Whisperer: http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/open-plan-not-working/#more-2884

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification.

I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/ social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

The reasons why this style has become more prevalent seem obvious to me but are rarely the reasons stated up front to staff: it’s cheaper (‘shared resources’), you get higher staff density and levels of occupancy (so the logic goes) in a workspace (read: it’s cheaper), and it actively feeds the competitive peer-to-peer monitoring that is the bane of many academics’ lives.

Let’s get these basic points about open plan out there from the get-go:
There’s overwhelming evidence that open offices are associated with lower job satisfaction; poorer interpersonal relations; worse concentration and creativity; damaged sleep, thanks to people working farther from windows; and more sickness, due to the potential for infection. [E]xperts who have studied the matter say those off-the-cuff chats [in open plan offices] are pretty superficial, because people are self-conscious about being overheard (Burkeman, This column will change your life).
For academia, the new corporate style of staff offices also means a harsher emphasis on hierarchies. These were always there, with academic levels determining how many square metres staff were allocated.

Today, though, lower level academics (e.g. Level A’s or Associate Lecturers in Australia), PhD students, and research assistants are often located in cubicle-farms and hot-desks.

These are the ‘share-offices’ of today. They’re sites where it’s very difficult to meet with your students or colleagues as there’s no privacy, so all meetings of any substance must take place in pre-booked rooms or external spaces.

I like meeting with people in cafes; it’s a choice I like to have. But it’s a different situation entirely when meeting in cafes or elsewhere - away from my everyday workspace - are a necessity for getting my basic work done.

Even if you do score an office, it’s probably a goldfish bowl. Higher level academics often still have their own offices, with Associate Professors and Professors having the largest ones - square metreage still applies. Bookshelf spaces, however, are limited by the fact that there’s so much glass to be accommodated and shelves cannot run against those surfaces.

Personal academic libraries at your place of work are increasingly considered a thing of the past - or, if you must hang on to your dead-tree items, they’re likely to be housed at home.

For me, this raises questions of whether the workplace is actually accommodating the work that an academic is meant to do. In addition, as @jasondowns commented, it can also be about locating (and losing?) scholarly identity.

Similarly, if the everyday workspace is at a constantly high level of aural and visual distraction, more academics will choose to work elsewhere (home, cafe, booked meeting rooms).

Again, this raises the question of whether the workplace is meeting the needs of its staff. I choose to do #shutupandwrite for the productivity and company; again, it’s my choice. For others, it’s a necessity; their workspaces aren’t conducive to focused work and decent writing.

The most irksome thing about the trend in open offices is that it’s presented as being responsive to the different, tech-enabled working practices of academics. But any flexibility that’s gained is by the workplace in space usage, not by the staff member in terms of choosing how they want to work.

While universities are very strong on the rhetoric of flexible work, they are far less accommodating of them in practice. Indeed, open offices breed an insidious culture of being seen to be present and accountable through spending time at your desk. Poor managers and supervisors depend on surrounding themselves with their staff, as if their physical presence equals getting work done.

The current structure of academia and how academic achievement is measured, however, works against the supposed benefits of open office formats. As Pinder et al argue in the conclusion of their report on new academic workspaces:
we observe that whilst increasing collaboration is frequently put forward as a reason for developing new types of academic office space, the academic reward system is still based primarily around individual achievement, and the starting point - doctoral research - is largely a solitary activity. Neither provides a great incentive for collaboration. If research at the interfaces of knowledge domains is the future, then the academic career model is, to some extent, history (Pinder at al, 2009, The case for new academic workspaces; emphasis added).
It won’t surprise you to learn that I have a lot to say about the regimes of new academic collaborative models, particularly in terms of whether the collaboration is good for the research area or only serving a metrics-based purpose for the researchers, but that’s for another post.

The evidence to date about the effectiveness and satisfaction of staff in open plan contexts indicates that they are unlikely to generate or foster quality research collaborations or, indeed, enhance collegiality.

So, I wish they’d stop telling us that story. Tell us another story, then I can get my teeth into that one, too.

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