Alex Rutar

Against Open Workspaces


It was recently pointed out to me that part of the initial proposal concerning the construction of a new mathematics building at the University of St Andrews includes the creation of an open hot-desk workspace for postgraduate research students. While functionally and bureaucratically appealing, I believe that this form of workspace organization is fundamentally opposed to the requirements of postgraduate research students.

Open workspaces are a common workspace “solution”, popularly depicted in media through association with certain US tech companies and other modern institutions. Such workspaces typically contain some or all of the following features:

  1. Large, open spaces with individual desks with minimal physical and visual obstruction between desks.
  2. Non-permanent desk space (hot-desking), typically combined with an alternative method for storage of belongings, such as lockers.
  3. Institutionally-managed communal resources.

Note that open workspaces are already in use in universities in Scotland: the most notable example I am familiar with is the Bayes Centre at the University of Edinburgh. My objection to this proposal, especially as it concerns usage by postgraduate students, is broken down into four parts:

  1. Identity and ownership of space
  2. Environmental familiarity
  3. Impact on productivity and collaboration
  4. Social conditions

Let’s discuss these parts in detail.

Objections to open workspaces

Identity and ownership of space

A permanent desk in a semi-private workspace is much more than a space to do work: it is a physical embodiment of one’s affiliation with and membership in the university itself. Embedded within the provisioning of the permanent desk is the commitment by the university that you are one of it’s important individual members. This sense of membership and community provides an important source of social cohesion.

This notion of ownership can also transcend the individual members. Here, perhaps, an example is useful. As a mathematics postgraduate student at the University of St Andrews in the analysis research group, I currently have a permanent desk in the so-called analysis bunker. This office has been used by analysis research students continuously over the past 10 years, and this history is present through the various idiosyncrasies of the space itself: copies of old books and publications, the name-tag-chain of past members of the office, the dilapidated giraffe poster on the wall.

I perceive our shared postgraduate office as more than just a space in which to work and interact with others: the space helps to constitute my membership of the analysis group itself. However, a personal, permanent, and physical connection to the space is a core requirement for such a space to develop and maintain its individual identity. The creation of a shared workspace is more than just the destruction of such spaces: it is the creation of an environment which implicitly precludes the creation of such spaces entirely.

Environmental familiarity

One of the key comforts of the personal home is its familiarity. This familiarity has at least two characteristic features: social repetition (you are exposed to and interact with the same small group of people) and physical persistence (the functional properties of your surroundings is unchanged over time).

Perhaps you are sitting beside a new, somewhat familiar but different person with different tastes and preferences for their workspace interactions. Perhaps your keyboard functions in a slightly different way than the keyboard you used last time (the A key is sticky, rather than the S key). Such micro-inconsistencies obstruct the effective usage of space. In other words, it is important that the objects of daily use are not only similar, but that they are identical. Moreover, while the magnitude of these irritations is small, the scale is substantially larger: you experience this friction every single time you use the space.

The usage of open workspaces, and particularly an impermanent solution in which one does not even have access to a fixed desk, is diametrically opposed to comfortable usage.

Impact on productivity and collaboration

Open workspaces are often detrimental to the focused work essential to academic research. Constant background sounds, movement, and the presence of others (both through distracting social interaction and simply the lack of privacy) are detrimental to focused work. Moreover, if one does not have a fixed desk, one must repeatedly set up the workspace each day, and must deal with the friction of a new environment as highlighted earlier.

However, one might argue that while there is a loss in productivity, the value is outweighed by the corresponding social benefits of an open workspace. In fact, the initial proposal explicitly mentions the following goal of the University of St Andrews: to “promote working across disciplines and interdisciplinarity in our priority thematic areas”. However, open spaces often have the inverse impact.

Bernstein and Turban explore this dynamic in their study on interaction in open workspaces. In their particular experimental environment, they observe that an open workspace actually decreases interactions between the members, and by a substantial amount (approximately 70%). In the introduction, they observe that “spatial boundaries have long served a functional role at multiple levels of analysis, helping people make sense of their environment by modularizing it, clarifying who is watching and who is not, who has information and who does not, who belongs and who does not, who controls what and who does not, to whom one answers and to whom one does not.” This implies a possible conceptual explanation for the reduction of interaction: since one does not have control over one’s surroundings, one must constantly accommodate for ones social appearance. For instance, one might be more inclined to give the appearance of continual focused work, even when the most beneficial action would be to take a break and socialize (or read a book).

Moreover, even if such a space did foster collaboration, it is unclear that the form of collaboration is relevant for postgraduate research students. For a postgraduate researcher who does not have wide expertise in a field, it is very difficult to collaborate with people in vastly different areas. In an open workspace, the interactions among postgraduate students will primarily be among students with different mathematical expertise; for the purposes of collaborative work, such interactions are essentially useless. Of course, this is not to deny the importance of social interaction among postgraduate students: but the solution is not to place all postgraduate students in a large open workspace.

In this sense, small shared offices are a better method to promote collaboration. Through the familiarity of the smaller group, one can become comfortable with the social environment. Moreover, if some thought is put into the membership of the offices, the interactions will be substantially more valuable in a collaborative sense.

Social conditions

I believe that access to permanent physical space is in fact more important for postgraduate research students. Two (typical) socio-economic features of postgraduate research students are that they have lower income, and that their housing situation is impermanent and requires semi-frequent moving. Both of these features are opposed to the creation of a comfortable workspace at home. A permanent, semi-private workspace in the university, which persists for the duration of the research degree, provides a stable environment on which one can fall back.

An explicit example is given by the current (i.e. Winter 2023) energy cost crisis in the UK: since the costs of heating have risen so much, it is cheaper—and more comfortable—to use university spaces when the weather is cold. Moreover, this effect is amplified when the cost of energy is a proportionally larger fraction of total income. Since an open workspace does not provide the familiarity and comfort that one might hope to find at home, there is no reasonable fallback in this situation.

Some final thoughts on community

From an institutional viewpoint, open workspaces are incredibly tempting: they are cost-effective through their economies of scale gained by abstracting the physical and spatial requirements of an individual and meeting them in a systematic way. However, it is precisely this abstraction of individual members—the viewing of postgraduate students as a group defined by their requirements and outputs—which dissolves the individual. In this sense, I hope that my criticism of open workspaces is understood as more than simply an opposition to certain architectural choices: it is an appeal to cherish the individuals who comprise the community which is our university. The maintenance and perpetuation of this institutional mode is challenging, since the abstractive success of a bureaucratic system is achieved through this process of individual dissolution.

It is as a passionate and proud member of my current educational institution, and it is through my responsibility not just to myself but also the future members of this university, that I oppose these fracturing structural forces and commit to the preservation of this wonderful community.