Offices are Personal, Workplaces are Functional

Office rectangle.squareFaculty offices are little changed from a time without the web, browsers and cell phones. Most administrative workplaces are just as quaint. This might be appropriate if faculty members could be in their offices, administrators could function at the speed of paper, and students did not expect 24/7 access. Times have changed faster than the campus has adapted.

Responding to this challenge is more difficult than improving teaching spaces. It is more problematic than transforming libraries.   Offices are personal. The perquisites of status and identity as well as the culture of the academy are threatened.

Obsolete Assumptions – Most faculty and administrative office plans and management practices fail to acknowledge the increasing mobility of faculty, staff and students, and the different ways in which people are working together. Policies governing academic offices were codified mid-20th century and based on now obsolete assumptions:

  • tenured faculty teach most of the classes,
  • private offices are required for scholarship and administration,
  • student-instructor interaction is usually face-to-face during office hours, and
  • administrative tasks and structures are rigid and hierarchical.

The office environments that have resulted from these assumptions do provide visual and acoustical privacy. They also provide compartmentalization, barriers to collaboration and limited adaptability. Since offices typically comprise two to four times as much space on campus as classrooms, why don’t we hear more about improving office environments?

When proposals are made to change existing arrangements, facilities managers can expect to encounter disbelief and hostility.   Larry Biemiller asked the impolitic question “Do All Faculty Members Really Need Private Offices” [link] Chronicle of Higher Education, July 30, 2010. At the time there were more than 200 responses to his 413 words. Some questioned the writer’s intelligence, while others attacked “bean counters” for daring to challenge the prerogatives of the faculty.

Writers from traditional institutions where tenure is still common tended to invoke status rather than function as a rationale for the private office. Those who taught at institutions where sharing traditional offices is common, saw well-equipped contemporary workplaces with collaboration zones and lots of small conference rooms to be a distinct improvement.

Facilities managers have a good sense of how seldom faculty offices are occupied. They are loath to use this information lest they be seen as accusing faculty members of shirking their responsibilities. The real issue is the significant change in patterns of office use since the mid-20th century.

Faculty members and administrators are not factory workers with a set standard place of activity every day. The productivity and responsibilities of ‘knowledge workers’ have evolved beyond the traditional office. The new academic offices must be based on updated assumptions.

Contingent Faculty – There are a few dozen institutions where the majority of teaching continues to be done by tenured faculty members. Everyplace else contingent or adjunct faculty members are the folks in the classroom. Part-time faculty members are carrying more and more of the teaching load, while the ranks of tenured faculty members dwindle [link].

Whether full or part-time these instructors are usually an afterthought in academic space planning. Most departments and colleges are not expected to provide much support, much less adequate workspace for adjunct faculty. In some cases departments are discouraged from providing any accommodation, while dedicated faculty offices sit unused for days, weeks and months at a time.

Private Offices When academic work was place-based, requiring vast collections of printed material, it made sense to provide all scholars and many administrators with private offices. Some scholars still work this way. It is a choice, and they might not be expected to change their patterns, but there are other ways to work.

Accommodating confidential matters, and providing a modicum of quiet time is one thing. Assigning and granting exclusive ownership of space for 8760 hours a year, year after year is another matter.

There are justifications for some traditional “private” offices. This is particularly true for offices that have mixed use, such as those used as studios. Examples are a music studio tied to the size of an instrument and acoustics of the space; an art studio tied to an easel and quality of light. These are the exceptions. The private office is more often about stuff than function; more about status than productivity; more about identity than collaboration.  There will always be private offices.  The number will shrink, in particular with the increasing number of adjunct faculty that require support.  The approach to better faculty and staff workplaces goes through the question, “What do you need to do?” rather than “Who are you?”

Student-Instructor Interaction – Face to face interactions between instructors and students provide an important justification for the campus experience. It explains much of how college works. Mobile communications make scheduling easier and multi-layered.  Managing this flexibility, while providing informal engagement is not served by the rigidity of traditional office hours. These important interactions from mentoring to discussion of grades need not take place in a faculty office.

Administration – Need for administrative office space has grown with mission creep, governance reporting requirements and the “businessification” of higher education. Many have squeezed contemporary business practices into settings that imitate the traditional private office settings of the faculty. Even if isolated settings worked for faculty, they are ineffective for evolving administrative practices.

Recommendations for facilities planners, designers and managers:

  • Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. With so much to be done elsewhere, ignore the existing offices of tenured faculty members as long as possible. Concentrate on all the other, more administrative areas that require attention. With the exceptions of new construction projects and renovations, time and retirements will allow the majority of the required improvements and reallocations.
  • Seize every opportunity. Each new construction project or renovation, major or minor, holds the opportunity to overcome cultural inertia. Two good models are provided by the Activity Based Workplace at the University of California – San Francisco and the Work+ program at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Both approaches are centered on function rather than status, improving productivity rather than saving space and money.
  • Hold the long view. Be patient. With good luck, transforming the work environment of most institutions will be a twenty-year effort. Responding to this challenge will be more difficult than transforming teaching spaces and libraries. Offices will continue to be personal, and changing them will alter the culture of the academy.

The digital transformation of higher education is not limited to the movement of students from the traditional classroom to hybrid alternatives. It is not limited to moving paper product from libraries. It is also moving faculty and staff from the conventional office to alternative workspaces with shared resources and collaboration all the better to sustain the campus itself.

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2 thoughts on “Offices are Personal, Workplaces are Functional

  1. So timely. We are relocating and consolidating two groups of IT/Computing folks. The members of one have faculty status…the other are staff. Both groups now report to the Director of the Library. There have already been some “interesting” discussions about “offices” and “workspaces.” Sacred cows are trembling all around me.

  2. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. At a research institution a professor may spend as little as 20% of the day (8 – 5) in the office; the balance is spent elsewhere. I’d say that’s to be expected. The more interesting metric (verifiable with occupancy sensors with over 2 years of data) show that a pure office building (on campus) never gets 50% occupied, at any time. This has led to some significant energy savings when the occupancy sensors were connected to both the lighting and HVAC systems in the rooms.

    So the next logical question is why even build a traditional office again? Faculty don’t use them much and neither do the administration. Do they need a quiet place to meet with students and others for confidential conversations? If so, then have several small offices available for two or three people to have a confidential discussion but not enough room to “build a nest”. BTW, I’ve seen much worse faculty offices than pictured above; a narrow path between books piled on the floors window sills, over and under furniture. I was baffled when the academic chair moved the person to an office 50% larger (just so the book-collection obsession could continue!

    Purdue is on the verge of experimenting with more mobile office spaces for engineering faculty. We’ll see what happens in the next few years. Engineers can be easy, they are not (usually) as heavily book-bound and they generally prefer the lab over an office.

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