New Frontiers in Designing the Academic Workplace.


My previous Head of School once told me that trying to affect change within a university is akin to being a barnacle on a container ship steaming across the Indian Ocean and attempting to change its course. He wasn’t wrong.

For the past four years, I have engaged in conversations with university property managers and academics in Australia, New Zealand and in the United Kingdom, on how to better design the academic workplace. These are often difficult conversations, particularly as property managers are increasingly concerned with university space not being effectively utilised, and academics – who are perfectly content with their ‘four walls’ – often vehemently rejecting any concept of an alternative solution. There is very little middle ground, with the topic invariably devolving into a dichotomous debate between academics who cleave to cellular offices and other staff who favour an open plan workspace. 

As a result of the research I have conducted on this topic over the last several years, I am convinced that neither cellular offices or open plan workspace is appropriate for academic work practices. Instead, we must consider a hybrid variation, giving academics access to a variety of spaces in which to work. Like other workplace interiors, the academic sector typologies are evolving to support creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. The key strategy is to design the academic workplace based upon existing and emerging academic work practices, rather than accept the cellular space typologies that have dominated universities for decades. The open plan model that is now standard practice in workplace architecture has come late to academia, but the factors driving it remain the same; limited resources, an inefficient use of finite space, the need to free up capacity for new areas, and a desire to promote a more collaborative work environment.


Utilisation of space is a key metric within all universities. It measures the maximum occupancy of a space multiplied by the frequency of use, across a predetermined number of hours per week (TEFMA, 2009). The metric is most commonly applied to teaching spaces in order to ensure that the optimum number of teaching spaces are operational, or identify where surplus and shortfalls may exist. The metric is rarely applied to work space, although university personnel often complain that work space – especially academic work spaces – are under-utilised.

The University of Melbourne study (Dane, 2014; Dane & Tracey, 2013) calculated that academics spend approximately 30% of their work week in their office, a metric that has also been reported by Parkin, Austin & Lansdale  (2006). 

In a commercial sense, 30% utilisation is simply unacceptable, with significant cost implications for tenants. As a general rule of thumb, commercial clients target 80% occupancy and consider anything less as unacceptable. Businesses recognise that some staff have mobile roles where they frequently move around the workspace, others attend many meetings off site, and on any given day there will be staff who are on various types of leave. That is why so many organisations are moving away from an ‘ownership’ model of workplace (where everyone has a permanent work point) to an ‘access’ model (where staff access the spaces that suit the work task to be done), a model also referred to as an ‘agile’ or ‘high performance’ workplace. While academics do not necessarily need to be fully ‘mobile’ or ‘agile’, universities are recognising they need to dramatically improve 30% utilisation of space. 

Connecting with Industry

Another issue placing pressure on the academic workplace is concern that academic work practices are not keeping pace with industry, potentially ostracising academic research at a time when universities are striving to establish greater connections with industry. For example, the Office of the Chief Scientist commissioned a report (Spike Innovation, 2015) declaring the “economic priority” for Australia was to produce entrepreneurs and to teach entrepreneurship within universities.  The report states that, “Australia is good at producing research outputs, but performs relatively poorly in converting this investment in science and technology into economic impact. Australia compares poorly with many other countries on measures of new-to-world innovation (in which a business is the first in the world with a particular new product or service), and our innovation performance has been declining for over a decade”. (ibid. p6)

Entrepreneurship is fast becoming a significant game-changer in higher education. Innovation depends upon fast-paced collaborations, problem solving and creative thinking, manifested through face-to-face interactions (including with people outside of the university). We contend that entrepreneurship and innovation will not only require a shift in academic culture, but also a different spatial response. When you look at academic innovation hubs such as the MIT Media Lab1 and Stanford Innovation Lab2, these centres are buzzing with people, ideas and energy. People ideate together; they don’t lock themselves away in offices to brainstorm independently. 

Where academic tasks are undertaken

The University of Melbourne study (Dane, 2014) revealed statistical confirmation of where academics undertake the majority of their work tasks, as detailed in Table 1.

This data confirms that apart from their primary work point, academics undertake a considerable amount of work at home. This practice has not always been officially sanctioned, yet has been synonymous with academic culture for decades. We do not intend to suggest that this practice should stop, but we do see this situation as contradictory to the argument that academics must have an office in order to work effectively. 

Interviews with twenty senior academics in the same study (ibid.) revealed equally contradictory sentiments. Almost every academic interviewed stated that having an enclosed office was essential to their productivity and effectiveness, yet when asked where they most frequently carried out tasks requiring concentration (reading, writing and deep thinking) they invariably stated these tasks were undertaken at home. The office, it seems, is most convenient for storing books, research material and meeting with students and peers, tasks that could readily take place in different types of spaces such as meeting rooms and shared libraries.

Another interesting finding from the study is the number of academics who never undertake certain tasks at their primary work point during semester:

  • 20% never undertake administrative tasks at their primary work point
  • 31% never undertake reading, writing & deep thought tasks at their primary work point
  • 44% never undertake student consultation at their primary work point
  • 47% never undertake postgraduate supervision at their primary work point
  • 36% never undertake meetings with colleagues at their primary work point

These findings indicate that many academics undertake their work tasks in locations other than their office. In other words, the argument that academics must have an office in order to undertake their work tasks is contradicted by the data which demonstrates numerous examples of staff choosing to undertake their work tasks in spaces other than their primary work point.


The academic workplace is currently in a state of flux, as universities around the world strive to improve the utilisation of spaces on their campuses. The issue is heightened by a sense that cellular offices do not encourage collaboration and interactions with industry or other researchers, meaning that emerging priorities such as multidisciplinary research and entrepreneurialism are being inhibited by the physical infrastructure. A reconceptualization of the academic workplace would necessitate interrogating academic work practices to establish the range of tasks, interactions and critical adjacencies the workplace needs to support. 

The workplace design will unfold out of a deep understanding of academic work practices, as well as underpinned with evidence and embedded in a change management process. Academics need to be central to design consultation methods and open to new possibilities. The design outcome will almost certainly convey a dynamic environment in which academics can effectively and productively undertake their work practice, and develop new ways of working that will foster entrepreneurialism and collaborations.


Dane, J. (2014). Academic Workplace Study. Unpublished Report. The University of Melbourne.

Dane, J., & Tracey, M. (2013). The Academic Workplace Research Study. Paper presented at the Tertiary Education Management Conference. Retrieved from

Parkin, J., Austin, S., & Lansdale, M. (2006). Research Environments for Higher Education: Departments of Civil and Building Engineering and Human Sciences, Loughborough University.

Spike Innovation. (2015). Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia - A role for universities: Australian Government, Office of the Chief Scientist.

TEFMA. (2009). Space Planning Guidelines, Edition 3.

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