The Saltire Centre, Glasgow Caledonian University

Why academia is embracing the open-plan office

Think of an academic office and the image that likely springs to mind is a corridor of dusty rooms, where professors hold small group tutorials. But the modern academic workplace is actually more likely to resemble a corporate office as institutions have evolved to offer collaborative workspaces which both encourage a better way of working and make more efficient use of their buildings.

While being granted your own office is often still seen as the ultimate sign you’ve made it in academia, the reality is that many academic offices are under-utilised and/or do not provide the teaching environment required in the 21st century. The number of staff in a building tends to drop dramatically out of term time and at the beginning and end of the academic day and offices can lie empty for months if staff are out on sabbatical. Even when in use private office space is often too cramped to be suitable for anything other than private study or holding small tutorials.

In addition, while quiet study space is an essential for academics, putting some of the best and brightest minds in your faculty behind closed doors does not facilitate the collaboration and sharing of ideas that is expected in modern universities. Plus, the rise of tuition fees has focussed students’ minds and lack of access to academics is often cited as one of the major issues for undergraduates.

Many institutions are therefore mimicking the corporate office by moving academics out into open-plan workspaces, albeit ensuring they still have access to quiet areas and class and meeting rooms when required. This enables the university to be more agile in terms of managing space to reflect staffing levels and operational changes.

Aalto University in Finland, for example, has successfully adopted ‘activity-based’ offices, where staff have either assigned or shared desk space depending on their working patterns, with separate areas available for solo and group work. As almost 400 members of Aalto’s staff now work in such offices occupancy rates have consequently improved. 

While the academic workplace has very different objectives to the corporate office, the latter offers valuable lessons in how to adapt the workplace to increase flexibility and productivity. By following in its footsteps many universities could increase occupancy rates and also improve the learning environment.  

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