This post on office space in UK higher education history departments is based on an online survey that 174 people filled in via a link I tweeted out last week.
The survey asked respondents about their employment conditions, employer, and office space.
Three apologies before I begin:
1. I didn’t ask about age, disabilities or gender, sexual, or racial identities, which in hindsight strikes me as pretty stupid. Next time!
2.I thought about breaking some numbers down based on types of institution, but I haven’t done this, because it is very complicated and I am not very clever. If you want to do this, get in touch. I am still grateful to those people who filled in their institution as it gave some guarantee they had read the header where it said this was a survey for UK higher education.
3.I am not a statistician, so my analysis here is very basic. Please let me know if it is wrong!
Some general conclusions:
It is normal in UK HE history departments to have your own office space.
But different kinds of employment (perhaps unsurprisingly) provide different kinds of space, which may be shared with one person or several.
Space matters, for lots of different reasons.
The first thing to say is that by far the largest number of respondents to the survey (around 45%) had their own office, followed by sharing with multiple people and sharing with one person.
Having an office is a sector-wide norm, and having your own office is also very common.
But the kinds of office space that respondents had access to was highly dependent on their employment conditions.
Respondents on open-ended teaching and research contracts were most likely to have their own office (56/79). 12 shared with one other person, 5 shared with multiple people, and 6 worked in open plan offices. This is broadly matched by people on fixed-term teaching contracts: 12/19 had their own office, 3 shared with multiple other people, 2 with one other person, and one respondent had the use of hotdesking facilities.
Postdocs were less likely to have their own space. Just 3/14 had their own office, while 8 shared, two worked in an open-plan office, and one had no space at all.
Again, it may not surprise readers to learn that no postgraduate student had their own office, with the exception of one respondent who clarified that they meant at home.
On the other hand, I for one was surprised that just 4 of 40 postgraduate respondents had no office space at all (which was the case when I did my graduate studies). 13 had shared office spaces (all but one shared with multiple other people). There were 6 respondents with desks in open-plan areas, and another 16 who could use hot desks.
(There were only small numbers of fixed-term contract researchers (7) and fixed-term admin posts (1) and some other respondents described themselves in other ways. Ultimate respect to the undergraduate student who filled in the survey and used it to make a dig at contact hours. You win neoliberalism for the year, and can collect your prize in the dystopian future).
Office space matters.
In fact, it matters so much that 4/10 academic historians in higher education would consider moving jobs for a better office. (I haven’t broken this down by employment status because see my point above about not being very clever).
It matters for lots of different reasons to different people, and it is not the case that all respondents think that the single-occupancy office is the ideal…
..but many did, highlighting the importance of what one respondent summarised as ‘space to work, space to think, space to meet’.
Above all, they meant space to meet with students confidentially (35). Several respondents told horror stories about the problems that result from being unable to see students in private. Others added that having your own office is important for meeting other professionals, and for data privacy in research. Having your own office, for at least 32 respondents was about privacy, and concentration with one respondent writing ‘My office is a refuge.’ If an office is for quiet thinking, the other thing many respondents mentioned in favour of individual offices was the ability to store books (mentioned 24 times).
The disadvantage of individual offices can be summed up in one word: isolation, which was mentioned by 17 respondents, who often spoke of feeling cut-off from colleagues, students, and facilities.
There was considerably more criticism of shared office spaces, with responses mentioning noise and distractions (23) and problems around eating, whether because food wasn’t allowed, or because, as one response memorably put it, the smell of ‘al desko’ lunches wafts through the space. One response painted a particularly distressing picture:
My open plan office has [a lot of] people in it and we cannot research, write, prepare or mark there, so the work gets done at home. The office is very bright with all white furniture. I now suffer debilitating migraines every week.
Nonetheless, there were lots of comments about the joys of shared offices, whether in terms of sociability and chatting (21) or discussing ideas (9).
Whether shared or not, respondents highlighted the importance of feeling valued or the risk of entrenching obvious hierarchies (6 responses), of accessibility (3 responses), and of work-life balance (8 responses). Respondents pointed out that not having office space at work damaged personal relationships, and reduced creativity and productivity. One pointed out that poor office provision impacted on different people in different ways:
Some of my male colleagues seem to think I’m just there to listen to their stories of how important they are. If you are trying to do lone work on campus the assumption is that you are available to everyone and anyone. I have no where else to work so often end up soaking up work from people who do their research and planning at home.
Many respondents mentioned that they felt that their employer did not take their concerns seriously. One wrote:
My university management would like to have an open plan office with no staff (except the most senior) having personal offices. I can see that their strategy seems to be to make working in small shared offices so unpleasant that we basically give up and capitulate. They are succeeding.
One thing that the survey reveals is that office space matters more broadly than simply the question of whether and how it is divided and organised. Other, less measurable aspects of office space were important to people with 14 discussing the pleasures of a specific space or view.
It can be hard to disentangle these ideas from the yearning in many responses for the ‘refuge’ for concentration and privacy that I mentioned earlier, with responses meditating on the importance of light, a view of some greenery, or just the basics: heating was mentioned by 11 respondents.