How to make flexible office arrangements work for your unit (opinion)

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One of the major perks of a tenured or tenure-track academic position is an assigned private faculty office. It is associated with status and rank. But many people—doctoral students, adjunct faculty, lecturers and others—are unlikely to benefit from that perk. Moreover, private offices are not only inequitable but also an inefficient use of campus space.

The flexibility to work from home and other off-campus locations has fundamentally altered the purpose and usage of private faculty offices. As anyone who has walked the halls of a college or university knows, private faculty offices often sit vacant. In a post-pandemic landscape where nearly 30 to 50 percent of the teaching is online and many faculty members no longer work on campus all the time, how much do we still need private faculty offices?

Campus planners, facilities managers and consultants are reimagining faculty workspaces for facilitating faculty-student interactions and supporting a growing adjunct population that has traditionally lacked access to office spaces. Our research shows that hot desks and other flexible and unassigned private offices, as well as meeting rooms and huddle rooms with private phone and video booths, can be a meaningful option for instructors and other people who visit campus for short periods of time—such as those who come in only for meetings once or twice a week or who teach just one class. Hot desks are temporary workstations available on a first-come, first-served basis. Users of hot desks and other unassigned workspaces are expected to remove all work and personal materials at the end of every work session. That ensures these workspaces can be used whenever vacant and increases the average number of users per workstation.

Such changes have been considered and implemented by the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, Cornell Tech’s Bloomberg Center, Community College of Baltimore County’s Centers for Adjunct Faculty Engagement and the MIT Sloan executive education team. Initially, members transitioning from private offices to unassigned workspaces were concerned about lacking space to spread out, store stuff and have the privacy to engage in a quiet conversation with a colleague or make a personal phone call. These concerns were dealt with by offering personal storage space and implementing zones that support different types of activities, such as private/quiet work, social/collaborative work and so forth.

After the initial transition period, users reported two positive impacts: 1) it was easier to see and reach out to colleagues in flexible workspaces, and 2) the random assignment of desks offered opportunities to connect with people beyond their immediate work team. Thus, in addition to saving money by accommodating more faculty members in less space, hot desking can support more equitable space usage and foster visibility and social connections among people at the institution.

To be sure, hot desking brings its own set of challenges. Hot desking changes the way that faculty conduct work and structure their day. It can create additional labor, as faculty members have to allocate time and effort to find, set up and clear out the hot desk after every work session. For example, one of us—Manju, a doctoral student—often had to budget an additional 30 minutes to her workday to find a vacant hot desk on her campus. And once she’d procured one, she usually ate at her desk and limited movement for fear of losing her precious desk space. She couldn’t leave her stuff and step away, even for a few minutes.

Indeed, when hot desking is used as a quick fix and not integrated as part of a wider conversation about how private offices are used and allocated, it can do more harm than good. It can perpetuate a two-tiered system of office haves and have-nots.

Thus, we recommend the following eight steps to make hot desking work for your institution, department or other unit.

  1. Conduct a space audit to assess workspace usage patterns and needs. Research evidence suggests that hot desks will work well for faculty who visit the campus fewer than two days a week.
  2. Understand the culture of your unit and use the space audit to engage in meaningful conversations with tenured faculty and address their concerns respectfully. We recommend that these conversations are held by and among faculty peers. Offering tangible alternatives, such as the use of a private office for one designated day every week, can be an incentive. Providing storage solutions for books and papers by working with the university library may be another one.
  3. Pilot hot desking in small areas within departments and buildings to gather feedback.
  4. Invest in desk-booking software that assists with locating and booking hot desks to reduce the labor, uncertainty and anxiety associated with hot desking. Provide multiple ways to access the desk-booking software, such as through kiosks in lobbies, prominent displays at entry points and smartphone apps. The costs are minimal when desk-booking software is bundled with existing institutional software subscriptions.
  5. Provide ample, easily accessible and secure storage space for work and personal materials—including books, papers, student exams, confidential research materials, tech devices, personal care items and the like. Faculty members need secure bookcases and filing cabinets; conventional gym lockers are not sufficient.
  6. Transform some private offices into shared spaces that can be reserved for small-group activities. Provide spaces for recharge and recuperation such as eating, exercising, resting and meditation near hot desks.
  7. Channel some of the cost savings to allow members to access coworking spaces in their communities—in other words, don’t assume that there is a binary arrangement where faculty members work either at home or in the office. Neighborhood coworking spaces are attractive to faculty members who have long commutes to the campus but whose caregiving and other household responsibilities make it impossible to work at home. They are also required by those living in precarious housing conditions.
  8. Finally, offer formal and informal communication channels to report and troubleshoot issues, such as people not honoring someone else’s appointment to use a hot desk or meeting space. Actively seek user feedback on new features. Tweak and develop solutions along with the community of users.

In summary, the user experience, well-being and productivity of faculty members and doctoral students who use shared hot desks hinges on how well campus administrators alleviate the uncertainty and diminished access to personal space often associated with hot desking. If you follow some of our recommendations, we think the approach may definitely be worth trying at your institution.

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