Professor … Get a Room!
The Faculty Office is a hot subject of debate across campuses today as colleges and universities fight to keep costs down and increase value to students. While the costs to build large, private offices for faculty are high, and the nature of the private workplace has grown more open and flexible, faculty frequently express concern about sharing or losing dedicated office space.
For us, this conflict has generated a litany of questions: How often do faculty members use their offices? Do individual offices support faculty roles on campus? Does mobile technology reduce the need for privatized space? Are there other solutions that balance space efficiency with needs for privacy?
To better understand the history, meaning, and future of the faculty office, Gould Evans’ Educational Practice leaders joined forces with Herman Miller’s Research and Exploration Team. Herman Miller Research lead Susan Whitmer sought out Gould Evans’ “practical and innovative insights based upon our educational project experience and passion for inquiry-based innovation.” Our joint research initiatives seek to develop an empathetic understanding of the work-life of faculty members in the academic workplace. Through this study, we hope to envision work spaces that continue supporting faculty in a contemporary educational context yet meet the demands for universities to operate more efficiently.
As part of our ongoing research, the team has interviewed a sample of faculty members from 4-year private and public institutions and uncovered some reoccurring themes. Below are highlights of what we’ve learned from faculty members about a typical academic day and what they value most about their jobs:
The “Right Room” is Everywhere
Faculty members tend to be highly autonomous and mobile. They are motivated to work outside their offices when other places on campus better satisfy the activity, such as meeting with a group of students or accomplishing heads-down work. Many work outside their offices as a lifestyle choice, preferring to work at home, at a coffee shop, or even while waiting to pick up the kids from day care. Others feel driven to find alternative workspaces because their offices are “bad spaces,” such as closets converted to offices.
Pilers not Filers
Many faculty members are “pilers” – they file by piling. Piling takes up surface area and crowds out student meeting and collaboration space. This organizational style can make for a dismal place to meet with students, cause distractions, and lead to impressions that the faculty member is disorganized or disinterested in the student’s issues.
Diversity and Choice
The majority of faculty interviewees stated a desire for diversity, or a range of spaces in which they like to work. Faculty appreciated having choice in selecting their working environment. They wanted environmental options including formal or informal, private or open, and task-oriented versus “loungy.” Since most campuses offer a diverse array of meeting and work places, faculty frequently take advantage of the options across campus.
Process and Respond
Faculty members tend use their offices most frequently for “process and respond” tasks including answering emails, grading papers, scheduling activities, and preparing course materials. However, many prefer doing these activities at home. A few made mention of “required office hours”, a practice that “tethers” them to their offices but is seldom used by students. The accessibility of faculty by text seems to be causing the occurrence of face-to-face visits during office hours to be dropping off dramatically.
Recruitment and Retention
We asked the faculty sample what attributes they considered most important in faculty recruitment and retention. The top seven issues were:
- Work/Life balance: Interviewed faculty valued flexible career paths, flexibility policies, and dual career support. Faculty members seek out and evaluate benefits such as family support, family leave options, the ability to use sick leave to care for ill children and parents, short term leave, and on-site day care. All these attributes point back to “choice” as a key determinant in their workplace satisfaction.
- Quality of students
- Desire to be in a broadly diverse community
- Meaningful recognition: Non-tenured track faculty cited this topic most. Many faculty members discussed their love for teaching and connecting with students yet wished for greater recognition of this core value and skill set.
- Academic quality of the university: Faculty noted concern for the intellectual quality of colleagues, promotion of collaboration across campus, eligibility of grants, and overall reputation of the university.
- Faculty mentoring and professional development programs
What’s missing in the above list?
We expected “office space” to be included in the top responses, yet it didn’t surface in any of the faculty recruitment and retention conversations.
With so many other considerations to evaluate when accepting an academic position, and the freedom to work where they want, when they want, why do faculty members so often prefer to keep a private office? One theory is that educators are being held increasingly accountable for their time and funding in a manner that, to some, unfairly misinterprets and undervalues the essence of academia. Financial arguments against additional spending on faculty are illustrated through the attacks within the University of Texas system, where administrators have attempted to evaluate faculty based upon a “profit and loss statement.” In this corporatized context, the private office may now, more than ever, represent an academician’s autonomy when intellectual pursuits are being challenged. Or perhaps it’s a vestige of another era, a representation of status more than a functional need.
Our research project continues. In the meantime, a big question has emerged; how are higher-ed leaders framing questions about faculty offices on their campuses? How are they hosting conversations with their faculty? Our insights drive home the point that the way in which these conversations are framed has dramatic impacts on the outcomes – outcomes about the values that the faculty share. In other words, we hear a lot of conversations on campuses that immediately back faculty into a corner and put them on the defensive about office real estate. Perhaps when we program new facilities, we need to look at the big picture and back away from immediate conversations about square feet per office. How else can we help institutions reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving industry?
A recent study at Boise State University shows the diverse roles and expectations that most faculty face.