Why open plan isn’t right for academia

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Tertiary institutions must accommodate the unique workspace needs of academics if they are to continue to contribute productively.


Australian universities, according to international ratings, are world leaders in knowledge creation and dissemination.

Their commitment to quality educational and research outcomes, complemented by safe, clean “liveable” cities, has put them in an enviable position as trusted providers to international student markets.

However, in the last decade, some worrying trends in Australian university campus architecture and facility management could threaten this ongoing success by unintentionally neglecting some elements that university staff need to be productive.

Few would disagree that our built environments influence our work and well-being

Humans are social beings, meaning that organisations benefit from bringing talented employees together into co-located workspaces.

Significant resources are used to design workspaces that foster social bonds and encourage creative collaboration and communication – and universities are no exception.

University office space typically accounts for 30 to 66 per cent of the non-residential buildings on campus

Space incentives

University office space typically accounts for 30 to 66 per cent of the non-residential buildings on campus (Baldry and Barnes, 2012, TEFMA, 2009).

These offices vary in their configuration, size and population but are historically cellular and typically linked with rising academic rank – the higher the rank, the larger the workspace and chance of having an office to yourself.

Australian academics vary from “A” (associate lecturer), to “E” (professor), and large numbers of level “C”, “D” and “E” academics occupy individual offices as a norm (Most universities in Australia have internal space planning guidelines that will inform these space/rank requirements).

As many deans or heads of school will explain to well-intentioned design professionals, who may suggest alternatives to this convention, hiring senior academic staff may often require a commitment to the provision of an individual cellular office.

Like it or not, academic offices are interwoven with historical precedent and involve perceptions of status, rank and expectant productivity.

Hiring or promoting the right (productive) academic staff member often involves negotiations regarding their future office provisions.

Like it or not, academic offices are interwoven with historical precedent and involve perceptions of status, rank and expectant productivity

Academic staff in countries outside of Australia (and some select UK and European universities) are surprised to find the provision of individual offices is not a given when considering joining Australian academia.

Creating work environments that support research

To be classified as a “university” in Australia, the institution must teach and conduct research (TESQA 2018).

Of the over 58,000 full-time academic staff currently hired by Australian universities, approximately 27 per cent are classified as “teaching-only”, and the remaining 73 per cent are “research-only” (29 per cent) or “teaching and research” (44 per cent) (UA 2015).

Teaching is typically delivered to groups, but research – as a combination of creative thinking and intense focus – requires high levels of acoustic and visual isolation and is conducted privately. 

When the first iterations of open plan offices entered the architectural lexicon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many acknowledged the inherent problems of this office model that still persist today.

The most common concerns then (and now) centre around noise, visual distraction and unwanted interruptions as well as other productivity killers (Laing et al., 1998, Pile, 1978, Kim and de Dear, 2013, Bernstein and Turban, 2018).

Duffy, as early as 1974, noted productive research staff required cellular office configurations (Duffy, 1974). Sheahan & King (2016) echo the same feedback from academics today.

If 80 to 90 per cent of a university’s costs are in employing talented individuals (Clements-Croome, 2018, Norton et al., 2018), the remainder constitutes operating costs.

Space efficiency should not be leading new academic office redesign arguments but rather augmenting what works for the long term academic staff occupants.

Inclusion within university space planning guidelines for minimum standards of energy efficiency and minimum standards of IEQ conditions, particularly noise levels conducive for academic productivity, is recommended. 

Academics typically require workspaces conducive to regular periods of intense focus.

What academics need in a workspace

Australian academic staff in the process of conducting research require workspaces conducive to regular periods of intense focus.

Unlike other professionals, who will often work in teams and attribute their measures of productivity to teamwork-derived outcomes, academics must be responsible for the work they produce on an individual basis across their careers.

These individual measures are recorded by their university employer and provided to Canberra for monitoring of each university’s productivity (ARC, 2018).

Teaching and student consultations, collegial contributions, administration and service to industry are very important, but often pale to the ongoing reality of academic staff who must “publish or perish”.

This is the ongoing reality regardless of external workspace trends and resource constraints.

academics must be responsible for the work they produce on an individual basis across their careers

Therefore, measures that are help understand the productivity of a university workspace are required.

The same mechanisms for understanding efficient use of office space, such as “utilisation”, are not appropriate for academic offices as they are regularly left vacant in order to teach and engage with students and industry as previously discussed.

How do we define wasted space?

As new university building projects continue to appear in parallel with the success of Australian universities (Francis & Moore 2019), the challenge will be designing academic offices that provide optimum productivity but respond to fluctuations in occupancy levels.

Not only will this maximise resource efficiency, but it will also minimise GHG emissions from operations.

Moving to open plan configurations will result in the loss of this flexibility, especially when highly autonomous academic staff – who choose to stay away from their newly constructed, open plan offices and conduct their work elsewhere – leave these large airconditioned areas devoid of occupants.

We can all agree this is not a sustainable outcome.


References

ARC 2018. ERA 2018 Submission Guidelines. Canberra: Australian Government.

BALDRY, C. & BARNES, A. 2012. The Open-Plan Academy: Space, control and the undermining of professional identity. Work, Employment & Society, 26, 228-245.

BERNSTEIN, E. S. & TURBAN, S. 2018. The impact of the “open” workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373.

CLEMENTS-CROOME, D. 2018. Creating the Productive Workplace: Places to work creatively, Routledge.

DUFFY, F. 1974. Office design and organizations: 2. The testing of a hypothetical model. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 1, 217-235.

KIM, J. & DE DEAR, R. 2013. Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26.

LAING, A., DUFFY, F., JAUNZENS, D. & WILLIS, S. 1998. New Environments for Working: The re-design of offices and environmental systems for new ways of working, Construction Research Communications Ltd.

NORTON, A., CHERASTIDTHAM, I. & MACKEY, W. 2018. Mapping Australian higher education 2018. Grattan Institute.

PILE, J. F. 1978. Open office planning: A handbook for interior designers and architects, Whitney Library of Design.

SHEAHAN, M. & KING, T. 2016. What if academics at your university interacted as much as the students? A review of current academic workplace design. Melbourne, Australia: Hassell Archiects.

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