Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

In doing research on the whole question of open-plan offices for academics, I have come across an enormous amount of material which exposes the problems across all sectors and globally of the open-plan workplace. A particularly well-titled article by Oliver Burkeman appeared in The Guardian in November 2013: Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell

There is also an excellent and instructive segment on Open-plan on the science program Catalyst which was broadcast by the Australian national broadcasting channel, the ABC in October 2014

Articles of note (there are others I have not listed here) which apply specifically to the academic workplace include a literature review and two excellent research papers:

The Future Academic Workspace: A literature review This paper was published in February 2014 by the international Architecture firm Hassell. It doesn’t argue one way or the other but the conclusions are more than clear.


Academic Staff Consultative Committee Issues Discussion Paper: Open Plan Office Space (Academic Staff) by Associate Professor Suzanne Ryan at the University of Newcastle in NSW, Australia, published 8 December 2014.

The open-plan academy: space, control and the undermining of professional identity by Chris Baldry (University of Stirling, UK) and Alison Barnes (Macquarie University, Australia), Work Employment & Society, April 2012 vol. 26 no. 2 228-245 doi: 10.1177/0950017011432917

The case for new academic workspaces
By James Pinder, Jennifer Parkin, Simon Austin, Fiona Duggan,Mark Lansdale, Peter Demian, Thom Baguley and Simon Allenby
Published in 2009 by Department of Civil and Building Engineering
Loughborough University

I was particularly interested by this de-identified comment, included in the second article above, from an academic who has been subjected to this process at a Scottish university:

We then had a number of focus groups with the architects, and the architects talked about what we need for our workplace and we were very clear that our offices were not just tiny cells that we sat and worked in on our own but they were where students came, they were where we could be found, they were where we kept stuff. They were, you know, our basic home… we explained it very, very clearly and the architects were very, very good. And the architects basically came to a feeling that we needed individual offices, but they are stuck between a rock and hard place ‘cos the university doesn’t want to pay for them. (Glenlivet #1)

Academics spend years – decades – building their careers often across the world and across several universities. Their office is their one home point in this peripatetic existence. The university is where their mail is sent to, where their email address is located, and their office is where they spend long hours reflecting on their research, engaged in frustrating administrative tasks, where people know where to find them, where they meet students and colleagues. It is also where they store the tools of their trade, often purchased at their own expense, not the institution’s: valuable research collections of books and papers, teaching materials, student work and specialised computing equipment.

Academics don’t see themselves as 9 to 5 workers, their core identity is usually attached to the kind of work they do. This, of course, is a hangover – no matter how dubious – from the identification of the academic and the medieval cleric and the notion of ‘vocation’. The attack on the academic office in this context, is not just an attack on professional identity, it is an attack on the academic’s very notion of home.

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