32

Where I did my PhD, typically two PhD students shared an office room. In constrast, where I am working as a postdoc now, about 50 PhDs and postdocs share an open-plan office.

I find it difficult to concentrate in the latter kind of arrangement because of the noise. Some people use head/earphones, but I guess not everyone likes to listen to music while working. I am wondering if this is a common arrangement in academia. My guess is that while it might work elsewhere, the nature of academic research precludes an open-plan type of office.

In any case, is it appropriate to ask my supervisor for a room or a smaller/quieter space to work in? I don't think I would ask, though, because everybody else seems to be fairly content, but I'm just wondering.

  • 29
    I quite honestly think that the open office plan is a terrible idea everywhere. Ask Dilbert: dilbert.com/strips/comic/2013-08-03/?Page=2 – xLeitix Jun 5 '14 at 22:18
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    Where are you located? In some countries the open plan office (not even a cubicle, but just desks next to one another) is the norm. – alarge Jun 5 '14 at 22:20
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    Yes, open-plan offices are actually quite common in academia; they're usually called “coffee shops”. – JeffE Jun 6 '14 at 3:17
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    @JeffE, do you mind explaining what you mean by "coffee shops"? – adipro Jun 6 '14 at 9:06
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    @adipro The things that Starbucks imitates, only with coffee instead of burned-coffee-flavored liquid candy. – JeffE Jun 7 '14 at 2:08
16

Although a 50 person office is larger than I have seen, open plan and shared offices are not uncommon in academia especially for graduate students and post docs. For individuals with teaching and supervisory responsibilities, open plan offices become less practical due to the need for privacy. The advantage of shared offices is that they help to foster interactions. Of course you can just leave your office door open, but many departments you can walk down the hall and all the doors are shut and you rarely get to interact with colleagues.

As for asking for a different office, it cannot hurt to ask. In one group I used to work in there was a 15+ person office with two small 1 person offices for hot desking at. It might be possible to wall off an area for hot desking. The idea behind hot desking is that multiple people can share a one person office since you will not need a quite office all the time. With networked computers or laptops it doesn't really matter what desk you are sitting at. This way you can setup small offices for dedicated tasks (e.g., reading, writing, and programming). Groups that spend a lot of time in a wet lab or a clinic often benefit from hot desking.

If you don't ask, then people will not know how to make the work environment better.

  • 2
    In grad school I was in a 50+ cubicle office with other grad students for a year while a building was renovated. The issue there was space - they had to put us somewhere. The situation the OP has may be similar: if the university doesn't have enough small offices, but they do have one large room, then they may think something is better than nothing. – Oswald Veblen Jun 5 '14 at 23:39
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    @StrongBad This may be because I tend to read academia.se late at night, but I have recently begun reading all your answers in Strong Bad's voice (in my head). I almost broke down in tears when I got to the part about hot desking... – NauticalMile Jun 6 '14 at 4:46
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    P.S. You spelled quiet incorrectly – NauticalMile Jun 6 '14 at 4:50
  • @OswaldVeblen, I am actually in a brand new building. With cubicles I think it is better. We do not really have cubicles. The floor has quite large openings to the floors above and below, so we can sometimes hear noises from there as well. – adipro Jun 6 '14 at 9:13
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    The "interactive" benefit I think is vastly outweighed by having everyone "in your face" all the time, whether interaction is wanted or not. – paul garrett Jun 6 '14 at 22:40
24

There is plenty of research showing that open-plan offices are a very bad idea, not just in academia but everywhere (see below for some examples).

Unfortunately, they are also much cheaper than proper offices (mainly because you can pack people much more densely).


Danielsson et al. (2014): "Office design's impact on sick leave rates", Ergonomics 57(2), doi:10.1080/00140139.2013.871064:

The cumulative evidence thus indicates that traditional open-plan offices are less good for employee health.

Oommen et al. (2008): "Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments?: A Review" Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management 3(2), 37-43:

Research evidence shows that employees face a multitude of problems such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction when working in an open plan work environment.

  • In my case, the floor area is actually quite large. I don't think cost is an issue. Either it is cultural, or the architect was not well-informed. Personally, I think it would have been much better already if they just install a few partitions to separate groups of 5, say. – adipro Jun 6 '14 at 22:32
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    Indeed, all information I have indicates that cost (->stinginess) is the motivation for such situations... and that it is hugely counter-productive and unpleasant for the people involved. But the decisions about the thing are made by people who don't have to personally endure the most obvious consequences of their choices... as is too often the case. – paul garrett Jun 6 '14 at 22:39
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    At my graduate school (U.S.) we had 16 students spread between six cubicles separated by five foot high partitions. We used to refer to it as the "Bullpen," in analogy with the area that relief pitchers warm-up in Baseball. It was completely unsatisfying. I had to go to the library or back to my apartment to get any serious work done. We mainly used the office for a continual game of bridge, which annoyed the faculty no end. We understood their point of view, but it never got us better conditions. – Chris Leary Jun 7 '14 at 1:18
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    BTW: Private offices vs open space vs cubicles: blogs.hbr.org/2013/11/research-cubicles-are-the-absolute-worst – Piotr Migdal Jun 7 '14 at 7:53
8

Is open-plan office for academia at all?

There is a pretty clear scientific consensus that open spaces has an overall negative impact on employees.

Some quotes from scientific studies on open space:

  • {2}: "Despite perceived privacy, irrelevant speech contributes to mental workload, poor performance, stress, and fatigue"
  • {4}: "Fewer words were remembered with working high noise compared to low noise. The participants were more tired after work in high noise compared to low noise."
  • {5}: "Noise has repeatedly been shown to be one of the most recurrent reasons for complaints in open-plan office environments"
  • {6} gives a nice overview of several scientific studies:
    • "In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation."
    • "When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared."
    • "Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance."
    • "Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness. In a 2005 study that looked at organizations ranging from a Midwest auto supplier to a Southwest telecom firm, researchers found that the ability to control the environment had a significant effect on team cohesion and satisfaction. When workers couldn’t change the way that things looked, adjust the lighting and temperature, or choose how to conduct meetings, spirits plummeted."
    • "An open environment may even have a negative impact on our health. In a recent study of more than twenty-four hundred employees in Denmark, Jan Pejtersen and his colleagues found that as the number of people working in a single room went up, the number of employees who took sick leave increased apace. Workers in two-person offices took an average of fifty per cent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of sixty-two per cent more."
    • "But the most problematic aspect of the open office may be physical rather than psychological: simple noise. In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. The psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help: even that, Perham found, impairs our mental acuity. Exposure to noise in an office may also take a toll on the health of employees. In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response. What’s more, Evans and Johnson discovered that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain. The subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative."

The list of scientific studies showing the negative impacts of open spaces is endless. I would argue that the nature of the job of a researcher makes open space even more harmful to their productivity.


References:

  • (Re: Answer v1) Am I the only one wondering why that list is starting from #2? What happened to #1 and #3? – 299792458 Nov 12 '17 at 11:23
  • Perhaps the references there were listed in chronological order. But the part quoted here refers only to references 2,4,5,6 and not to the other references. – GEdgar Nov 12 '17 at 12:27
3

It has a very negative effect on me since I'm an extreme introvert. When people so much as look at me while I'm doing mental work (mathematics) it's incredibly distracting and energy draining.

I usually just walk around the building, find an nice empty classroom, and set up camp there

2

I've experienced a large number of open-plan offices in my time in academia - the student offices in graduate school, almost all of the offices in my postdoc, and now where the students and postdocs in my lab are.

Generally speaking, I don't like them, but there's one very real reason why they exist: Space is at a premium.

This is the same rationale used by many businesses, except universities don't have the possibility of changing offices when their leases come up for renewal. Offices, inherently, take up more space and are less flexible in their configurations. The ability to give people desks at all might offset the cost of them not being the ideal desks for productivity.

That being said, there's no reason you can't ask. But in my experience, there's a large degree of politics regarding who has offices and who doesn't, so I'd be prepared to have the answer be "No."

The one time I tried it, the answer before I got the question halfway out was "Don't even ask."

-9

As a Spatial Designer that designs university interiors in the UK, I will keep this brief: University's cannot afford singular offices. Researchers and academics need to realise this. The energy costs for the institutions are crippling, heating and lighting hundreds of small offices (which are often empty) is financially and environmentally unsustainable, never mind the maintenance. Meanwhile undergraduates: the paying customers, have to make do with poor quality learning environments and tired social spaces because all the money is being spent behind closed doors. What university academics often fail to realise is that there are many many people in the commercial world that do very high level research in contemporary and efficient open office environments - not hidden away behind a wall of yellowing books and completely unaccountable.

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    For "I hate academics", this wasn't brief at all. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 16 at 7:19
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    Among other issues with this answer (rant): universities are not businesses. Undergraduates are not customers. Having a personal office does not make one unaccountable. Social spaces for undergraduates should not be prioritised over the working environment of the staff. – Johanna Apr 16 at 7:41
  • Academic freedom already ensures that academics are unaccountable. But I have to say it's great you brought this perspective even though I viscerally disagree like others here. We need privacy and quiet to to maintain the mental focus needed to build on those hard topics from those hard books and classes that the rest of you avoided in school. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 16 at 16:56
  • and as for those commercial researchers, they hate it too. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 16 at 18:35
  • Our offices have no forced-air ventilation, it's all natural draft. Meanwhile, the lab is maintained at 72 degrees +- 1 degree, with minimum 5 air changes per hour, and 2 x 250 CFM fume hoods. And we're not a chemistry lab either. They have rooms where 100% of counter space is a fume hood. Don't even think about the cleanroom. Crappy offices are a false economy. – user71659 Apr 17 at 3:58

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