Many further and higher education workplaces now mirror the modern trend for open-plan and shared workspaces. This may work well in companies where everyday activities involve teamwork and conversation, but it’s not such a great match when individual scholarship and confidentiality are part of your job description.
That said, academics seem to be the last people consulted when universities design new buildings—which leaves us to make the most of what we’re given.
Address confidentiality and security issues.
Noise and distraction are not actually the biggest problems in shared workspaces. When you can’t lock your office door, you must think carefully about confidential data and confidential conversations. Data security breaches, such as students meeting one member of staff and happening to see marks lists on the desk of another, are serious business—as is the potential for theft of exams or data. Academics are not security experts, so employers need to provide workable systems and storage facilities.
Speaking of theft, this is also an often-reported problem in shared offices, especially large open-plan ones where outsiders can easily wander in unnoticed. It’s easy to forget locking the door when you’re just popping out for a cuppa, so remind each other often, or encourage code-locks.
Tutorials and pastoral care are an important part of our job, but require space and privacy. At one university, staff were reduced to booking student video-screening rooms to have private pastoral-care discussions with disabled students, as these were the only bookable space available. Five academic office-mates at another institution set up a system where each could book “private time” for tutorials.
However, these are not really long-term solutions: Staff need to make it clear to management that if offices are shared, other spaces will be needed for these core duties.
Make your own rules.
Some like music while they work, others find the radio or your iTunes collection massively distracting. Headphones are a good solution, but it helps to sit down occasionally and talk about anything that’s causing irritation. Like flatmates, office-mates need to decide what works for them.
Those most bothered by issues like loud phone conversations or desktop lunching are often the last to speak up, so it’s best to have occasional planned, semi-formal discussions until everyone feels comfortable with arrangements.
Sharing a desk is especially tough: come up with agreements about personal drawers in desks or filing cabinets, personal in/out boxes or stacked trays, and issues like photos and plants on desks, before management responds to complaints by banning anything that makes workspaces comfortable!
Get out of the office.
Working from home as often as possible has been the key to survival for many academics who simply can't stand sharing a desk or room. For those who find it at least borderline tolerable, the decision of others to work from home decreases the number of people actually present on any given day. A win-win if there ever was one!
Others have sought out more congenial spaces on campus, from quiet library rooms to underused areas in their building. The sight of lecturers marking in reserved study carrels at the library or in local cafes is becoming increasingly common.
Portable “personal space” is also helpful, especially for hot-deskers. A carryable tub, box or wheeled cart can work well as a way to organize teaching materials and personal effects.