Health warning for university staff with clear desks

Professor Curt Rice at Norway’s Oslo and Akershus University College, or HiOA, is a rector without an office. He shares an open plan office space on the seventh floor of the HiOA central building in central Oslo with two other members of the leaders’ team and six office staff.

The seventh floor was rebuilt in 2014, a year before Curt Rice became rector, and he moved in without setting up any walls.

The move was an experiment for improving the leadership culture at HiOA when the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education or NIFU, found in its evaluation of the university college that the elected leadership at the college did not function well, and proposed an open area office solution to try and redress this the year before Rice became rector.

“It grew out of a feeling that there was too much isolation in the group and that his might make it easier to interact,” Rice told University World News.

“I like being able to easily talk with more than one of my team at once, instead of having to work my way down the hallway or have a meeting or giving some information to one and not another. It’s comfortable and easy and good for quick interactions.”

More universities will be switching to open plan offices and may be hot-desking now that the government has issued new regulations, enforced in public buildings by Statsbygg, the Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property, which limit the amount of office space per staff member.

The University of Bergen, for instance, has reacted to the new directive by drawing up a master plan for the use of its university area, recognising that its 147,000 square metres represents 40 square metres per staff member compared with 23 square metres now being considered.

“This means that the area per staff member is high and hence the work for a more effective use [of the university area] will be central in the future area management at the university,” the Bergen master plan explains.

Similar strategic plans are now being worked out at other higher education institutions, and a number of pilot projects have been introduced, trying out open plan office spaces where staff members do not necessarily have their own office space, but take any place available and keep their belongings in a box overnight.

The new orders from university leaders have generated a heated reaction in the university press and are being studied in detail by university labour unions.

One question being debated is whether the ongoing deregulation of private offices will only be carried out for administrative positions, with university bosses and elected leaders exempted, and whether researchers will be included.

Rice said that he does not miss having his own office.

“I am often participating in meetings during the day, and only seldom sit down at my desk writing. But I do understand that the question of having your own office space versus an open office landscape is something that is engaging many on the staff,” he told Khrono, the HiOA web-based newsletter..

Malmö University rolls back

Meanwhile, Pa Hoyden, the University of Bergen’s web-based newsletter, published a story from Malmö University college in southern Sweden, which is to be awarded full university status on 1 January 2018.

The prestigious Niagara Building was finished in 2015, with 25,000 square metres of office space and around 500 staff members and 4,500 students. It originally had an activity-based concept for staff members where they sat in the appropriate place to support a particular activity, practising the ‘clean desk’ principle, keeping their belongings in a box instead of being at a fixed desk.

The Niagara Building was nominated for the ‘best building’ in Sweden in 2016, but it had already then been reported that staff members had started to work from home because they did not feel comfortable in the open plan office and came to the university only for meetings and other assignments.

Now reconstruction of the SEK750 million (US$92 million) building is under way, according to Swedish newspapers. It is an open question how the office space will be rearranged since there is not enough room for every staff member using the building today to have their own office.

Increased sick leave

Concern over open plan offices is reinforced by the research of Jan Pejtersen of the Danish National Centre for Social Research on the issue of open plan offices and the impact on people’s health.

He told University World News that he would not participate in the Norwegian debate, but forwarded research he has carried out on the issue, involving large surveys of people in multiple-occupancy office space and with control groups in ordinary offices for one person.

The analysis was based on a national survey of Danish inhabitants between 18 and 59 years old where 2,403 employees reported working in offices. The different types of offices were characterised according to the self-reported number of occupants in the space.

The results showed that absence due to illness was significantly related to having a greater number of occupants in the office when adjusting for confounders – influence on the statistics from outside factors.

Compared to cellular offices, occupants in two-person offices had 50% more days of sickness absence, occupants in three-to-six person offices had 36% more days of sickness absence, and occupants in open-plan offices (with more than six people) had 62% more days of sickness absence.

The conclusion of the research was that occupants sharing an office and occupants in open-plan offices (with more than six occupants) had significantly more days of absence due to illness than occupants in cellular offices.

Occupants in open-plan offices are more likely to perceive thermal discomfort, poor air quality and noise and they more frequently complain about central nervous system and mucous membrane symptoms than occupants in multi-person and cellular offices.

The psychosocial factors were only weakly related to office size. “Open-plan offices may not hence be suitable for all job types,” Pejtersen concluded.

University World News asked Statsbygg if they knew about Pejtersen’s findings, but received no response.