Open Plan – how not to do it!

Researchers accommodation at ImperialReading Julia’s response to my post about the Jennie Lee building got me thinking about its potential effect on the communities. The work-based communities, such as the courses team or the OpenLearn team, will be placed near each other in delimited spaces. But what about the other groups.

I am thinking particularly of the PhD students. There are now about 9 of us in IET. Some don’t come in very often, but there are about 6 of us who are here most days most weeks. This is an ideal opportunity for us to be located near each other so that those further down the line can be there for those who are in the early stages.

My personal experience of being in a student group has been very positive. The three of us (Anesa, Rebecca and me) have shared an office for the past three years and this has helped. It is good to have the support of people who are in a similar position and subject to similar worries and concerns. It can be very reassuring and you can share ideas, hints and tips. 

Of course, it is possible to break this community down. About a year ago, another university faculty/department decided it needed more room in its open plan area and simply shunted all its PhD students up to the 3rd floor. I gather from the students that there was no consultation, they were just moved up there. When the arrived, there weren’t even any dividers to break down the huge space. This created a very unwelcoming area which caused great upset. To top it all, the desks they had vacated simply remained empty.

This certainly re-inforced how unimportant they were and how irrelevant their needs were and I think the fallout is still happening even now.

People often approach me and ask where the IET PhD students are going in the new building. Nobody seems to know. I suppose the worst scenario is that students won’t be planned for and will end up separated from each other and placed in the worst desks that nobody else wants. Like the picture I took of the researchers’ area in Imperial college London.  I guess we shall soon find out 🙂

About Gill

Having worked as a Research Fellow with the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, I have now semi-retired but retained my association with the OU as an Honorary Associate.
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2 Responses to Open Plan – how not to do it!

  1. Hi Gill
    I hope like you we can have an interesting and creative space in the new building. As part of the new ‘management trio’ 😉 for TEL we are now involved in trying to work out how best to organise the space. To be honest whatever we do is going to be a compromise and I, like you, would be much happier if there was less of a density per space for the building – then we could create more interesting, flexible spaces. That said we are trying to make do with what we have got. Doug and Patrick in particular are leading on trying to create a really interesting innovative shared space – “digilabplus-IET style” for all of us, and Patrick, Martin and I are trying to work out how to group people in TEL – our current feeling is to ‘semi-group’ people into zones and let them each within their groups decide how best to organise themselves. An alternative is a lottery based approach or a six month all change approach!!! Rest assured PhD students have NOT been forgotten – you are an incredibly important part of IET culture and the community and we recognise that the environment you work in, the amount of support you get, the degree to which you feel part of the community are all very very important aspects and contributors to your ultimate success and to your reflection back on your time at IET. Can’t promise to have magic, wonderful solutions for you – but I can assure you we are doing our very best, despite the constraints….

  2. Gill says:

    I’m glad to hear that you’re on the case with Doug and Patrick. 🙂 I’ve no doubt that you’ll have some interesting ideas for organising the space.

    My last company moved us all to open plan. As here, many employees were set against it and there were high levels of anxiety. However, once we had settled in, I found it one of the best working environments I’ve ever had. I sometimes feel as if I’m the only person (apart from Rebecca) who actually likes open plan.

    Sure, things could sometimes get a bit noisy, but that was infrequent. The key to success was, I think, a fairly low occupation density and high spec office furniture. We each had what we referred to as a “cattle pen” with a fairly large L-shaped desk, two sets of drawers and a two-shelf locking bookshelf attached to the partion. The partitions could be as high or low as we wanted and the space was flexible enough that teams could organise, within reason, how their space was laid out. Some had no dividers between people, just surrounding the group, others had combinations of low and high. And these could easily be changed by adding or removing panels. Because the individual “pens” were fairly large, privacy and phone conversations were not an issue. If you leaned into your area and spoke quietly, you weren’t easily overheard.

    Another key feature which made the space pleasant was the windows. Every wall was a clear window from ceiling to floor. Even if you were in the middle of the space, there was always a view of the outside in line of sight. The new building too seems to have some nice windows, although it’s a shame that so many of them are opaque.

    When all’s said and done, I think it is the people that make up the community, not the surroundings.

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