The Offices of the University

Although we’re still in the middle of this year’s examination period at Maynooth University many of us are having to give considerable thought to how we might manage the forthcoming return to work that is being phased in. The next stage is due to begin on June 8th.

One of the immediate issues to grapple with is how to maintain social distancing for staff and research students. Undergraduates will be an even bigger problem but they’re not due back until September.

Thinking about this I was reminded of an old post I wrote in 2011 about office space many years ago in response to the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) report entitled “Performance in Higher Education” which looked into university estates management. Among other things, this report stated that in English universities academics are assigned an average of 13.2 sq m of office space per person, Scottish institutions offer 14.5 sq m, and Welsh universities a “whopping” 15.7 sq m. By contrast the average office space per person across all sectors in the UK 10-12 sq m.

In the time since then I noticed that many universities put up many new buildings, many of them involving large open-plan spaces instead of individual offices. That’s because these are much cheaper to build.

I even came to work in an open-plan office myself for a couple of years in the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University. I had lovely considerate office mates there but even so it wasn’t always an environment in which it was easy to concentrate. It was of course impossible to conduct confidential discussions or hold tutorials there.

Anyway, you can read my other objections to open-plan offices there. I won’t repeat them here.

For the record I should say that I, and the other permanent teaching staff at Maynooth University all have an individual office. The return to work for us should therefore be relatively easy to manage.

My point on this occasion is that if we are to ensure 2m social distancing for staff that means a minimum of 12.56 square metres (based on a circle of radius 2m) or, more realistically, a square of side 4m, ie 16 square metres. This is assuming a person can move within the space allocated rather than being permanently rooted to the spot.

That level of distancing would mean reducing the capacity of open-plan office spaces considerably. Moreover, operating such spaces in shifts in order to achieve this will probably require deep cleaning between shifts. Shared spaces of any kind, including laboratories, are going to be hard to manage at this time.

Individual offices for the sole use of one staff member would not require any such measures.

All those shiny new University buildings with big open-plan spaces for dozens of staff aren’t looking so clever now are they?

5 Responses to “The Offices of the University”

  1. In the Institutes of Technology, 4-5 lecturing staff typically share a small office. I’ve always thought this, more than teaching loads, is the major bar to research. It’s very social, but it’s also very easy to get into the habit of prep, admin , a social chat then home in the evenings.

  2. Joern Wilms Says:

    I agree with all of the objections about open-plan offices and would avoid using them at all costs.

    However, the 1.5m / 2m separation regulations are separations between people, i.e., if A is 2m away from B, then automatically B is 2m away from A. Or, in other words, only half the area is needed per person.

    At least this is true provided that A can pass B with a distance of more than 2m when they need to go to the exit (e.g., to use the bathroom).

    The latter issue has caused our 250 people lecture halls here in southern Germany to be certified for examinations that include only up to 30 people (we’re still teaching until end of July).

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, you are correct if each person is a fixed point. I was assuming each person would be able to move within the space allocated to them.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    What about the humanities? Do they still have their own offices, as is necessary to really *think*? You might hope that the compromised academics and silly administrators who plan these buildings would appreciate the importance of thought in a university, but no…

  4. My worry is that universities will now use this as an excuse to build even more new and expensive buildings, at the expense of research and teaching funding…

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