The Secret Lives of Faculty

The Secret Lives of Faculty

What is it about faculty offices that stirs up so much controversy? Go to most campuses, strike up a conversation with facilities personnel, and it quickly becomes a loaded topic. We wanted to dig deeper to gain a better understanding of the needs of faculty and campus leaders to address the topic with informed facts.

Our team recently returned from West Michigan for another insightful Research Immersion Workshop, our ongoing partnership with Herman Miller’s research team. We appreciated working beyond our typical collaborative circle to challenge our thinking. As Bruce Mau says in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, this session was an opportunity to: “Listen carefully. Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world into our own. Neither party will ever be the same.” 

Together we continue our deep dive into the future of the academic workplace – a fascinating journey thus far.

Why Go Here? A few reasons:

1. For the last two decades we’ve put immense effort into classroom research and design, as well as learning experiences that extend outside the classroom. This work has been predominantly student-focused. Why not devote similar design energy toward the academic workplace? We often hear that the students’ experience in the classroom is only as good as the experience facilitated by an inspired faculty member. Isn’t the faculty responsible for delivering value to students – the very value that’s being challenged relative to the increasing costs of education?

Respondents overwhelmingly ranked “Quality of the teacher” as the highest attribute for learning outcomes in a poll conducted by the author at a 2014 educational symposium. Source: Author

Respondents overwhelmingly ranked “Quality of the teacher” as the highest attribute for learning outcomes in a poll conducted by the author at a 2014 educational symposium. Source: Author.

2. We often hear woes from campus facilities personnel and administration about the “burdens” of faculty office space. While management may consider faculty office reductions as a means to cut building and maintenance costs, faculty members often voice frustrations about poor work spaces and a general under-appreciation of their efforts.

3. In the corporate workplace, a variety of open office settings have replaced private offices. There’s also much more talk about efficiency of square footage utilization as tracked by The Commercial Real Estate Development Association. It only seemed prudent for us to question why the academic workplace hasn’t taken any cues from these global corporate trends.

Era Study

The first phase of our research traces the evolution of the academic workplace from ancient Greece through the 21st century. The composition of the academic workplace took many interesting turns over time, with a major transition occurring after World War II when the GI Bill dramatically boosted college enrollment rates. This educational boom effectively gave birth to a mass production approach to higher education. Growing student populations meant larger administrations to operate larger institutions, and hence, a lot more offices! In this time period we noticed a “one-size-fits-all” approach to faculty office design, with little consideration given to the actual needs of faculty.

Excerpt from Era Study, Source: Gould Evans

Excerpt from Era Study, Source: Gould Evans

Office Investment Cost Study

The ongoing conversation about how much real estate is devoted to faculty offices led us to investigate how actual costs of faculty and administrative offices compare to overall facilities operating costs. While most institutions we contacted don’t track such metrics, we were able to uncover some initial data suggesting that the ratio of office to overall facility costs is actually quite low.

At Stanford University, office space makes up only 2.8% of the campus’ overall square footage. We took this square footage data and calculated projected energy costs associated with faculty offices. This method averages all space types into the same cost/sf/year. It turns out that faculty offices are one of the most efficient space types on campus, more so than laboratories, cafeterias, and recreation centers.

This analysis challenges the cost argument that faculty office space is too expensive. Interestingly, there’s little debate about the cost of office square footage assigned to non-faculty personnel, which occupies almost eight times the amount of space as faculty offices. If faculty are at the heart of an institution’s purpose, then why is so little design attention and financial investment given to making their roles more effective?


Upper Left: Square Footage Allocation for Offices vs. Campus-Wide Facilities, Source: Stanford University Space Planning Guidelines. Upper Right: Energy Cost Per Year in Dollars, Source: US Department of Energy. Bottom: Regional Energy Use, Graphic: Gould Evans.

Empathy Study

Our third phase of research explores what faculty members do throughout the day. Our team conducted personal interviews and asked faculty to participate in a D-Scout mission to analyze their weekly activities. Four outcomes of the Empathy Study stood out:

  1. We observed two major patterns. The first was the absolute lack of patterns relative to faculty activities, schedules, and space needs. The second was a lack of space that adequately supports the variety of faculty work modes. Faculty members all struggled at some point in their weeks to align activities with well-suited space.
  2. The activity modes that make up the typical day in the life of a faculty member are wide-reaching. However, available spaces are not as optimized as compared to contemporary corporate settings. Fortunately, faculty are resourceful and resilient in their abilities to adapt to less-than-optimal spaces.
  3. The work life of a faculty member is unusually autonomous and mobile. Faculty members reported using spaces all across campus, off-campus, and at home to conduct their jobs. Because faculty members interface with such a wide range of people over a typical day, their supervisors lack the daily contact to “manage” compared to a standard office work setting. In this sense, faculty live “secret lives” from their supervisors.
  4. Faculty tend to be connected to work 24/7 as the boundaries between work and private life are increasingly blurred.

Points of View

Our workshop concluded with the formation of several “Points of View” intended to inform future design thinking on campuses:

POV 1: “Secret Lives” of Faculty

The roles and responsibilities of faculty are vast, both on campus and off. A student may have a close relationship with a teacher in the classroom without any knowledge of her research pursuits. A colleague well known in committee meetings may be more anonymous across departments. Administrators may know a faculty member on their own campus, but less so at the other institutions where faculty members often hold second or third teaching positions. The “the secret lives of faculty” framework provides us an empathetic lens through which to understand faculty members’ challenging lives, and can enable us to develop a pattern language that better supports an instructor’s daily endeavors.

POV 2: A New Design Approach

Projects tends to focus on “student first” experiences. In the worst examples, office space fills “residual space.” In the best examples, the student experience drives the design while the faculty experience is secondary – not bad, but not great. What if we invested the same design energy exploring high-performance faculty work space as high-performance classrooms?

We commonly hear from our clients about the growing challenge of attracting and retaining great faculty. Schools are seeking out new models of instructional delivery because of the shortage of qualified faculty. What if we took our User Experience design process and applied it to academia? What if we were able to repurpose that same allocation of square footage and enhance the faculty experience, thus enhancing faculty attraction and retention metrics?

POV 3: A Calling for Teaching

Herman Miller has completed in-depth research on basic human needs and the importance of having a sense of purpose; a “calling.” This idea was mirrored in our survey results and faculty interviews. Faculty members feel the most energized, inspired, and connected in the classroom. If this sense of purpose is so critical, how can classroom design facilitate relationship-building in addition to content delivery and student teaming? How can learning environments be a place to foster whole-person development rather than simply the gathering of credit hours and seat time? How can workspaces outside the office and classroom better enhance student-faculty interactions?


POV 4: A Palette to Support Work Needs

Academic workplaces are generally not optimized, and they are further hindered by outdated facilities planning principles. The opportunity to optimize the academic workplace is huge. In contrast, the contemporary corporate workplace has already provided an array of environments that better suit the palette of work modes. Herman Miller’s Living Office research goes so far as to create a taxonomy of work settings to best suit the needs of today’s various work activities.

HM_Modes of Work_F

Herman Miller’s Living Office Modes of Work identifies ten workplace settings that can accommodate activities such as “chat,” “co-create,” and “contemplate.” Source: Herman Miller.

Could the design approach to the academic workplace build from this taxonomy to better support how faculty members actually work? Is there an approach that balances current square footage allocations with more appropriate settings via different spatial or programmatic distributions? Can we reassess the campus ecosystem and borrow principles of “urban acupuncture” to better utilize existing spaces across campuses?

POV 5: Position for Change

Sixty-three percent of faculty today are 55 years of age or older. In the next ten years there will be a huge shift in faculty demographics and attitudes.

Data Source: Inside Higher Ed, Graphic by Gould Evans.

Data Source: Inside Higher Ed, Graphic by Gould Evans.

From 1960 to 2009, the ratio of tenure-track to contingent faculty has reversed. Combine the rising number of contingent faculty with the new generation’s desire for better work-life balance and there could soon be a new ideal in academia: contingency is the new tenure, free agency the new status symbol.

Data Source: American Association of University Professors, Graphic by Gould Evans.

Data Source: American Association of University Professors, Graphic by Gould Evans.

Anticipating emerging trends and needs for changing demographics will be important in order for institutions to remain competitive.  The development of co-working models, actionable faculty networks, faculty-community models, and even labor unions are strategies that give faculty a sense of belonging and empowerment. These professional organizations combined with a new campus workspace typology could provide a thriving environment for a future faculty workforce composed mostly of free agents.

There’s much work to be done with the academic workplace to catch up with other aspects of today’s campuses. But the conversations are happening and opportunities vast. Our work continues.