ABW doesn't work for academics - yet

06 December 2023
Tricked again! Another conference, another case study, and another presentation about Activity-Based Working (ABW) in higher education… but “just for professional staff at this stage.” Perhaps one day someone will present a successful ABW project for academics, but we are not there yet.

That’s not to say ABW for academics hasn’t been tried (it has), or even that it isn’t successfully happening somewhere (please call us!). But if there is one that’s working well, the university in question would surely be shouting from the rooftops? It’s Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, the needle in the haystack, the space utilisation end-game.

As part of a global university workspace policy review, Campus Intuition has been scouring the higher education sector for a successful, ongoing Activity-Based Workplace for academics. And by that we mean a very general interpretation of the term – shared, workspaces to suit a variety of tasks that don’t include allocated individual offices. We’ve found projects that have started strongly but fallen away to become territorial again, either by stealth (“I just need this meeting room for a temporary office…”) or by management edict after a leadership change. We’ve seen ABW designs that have been diverted to office-based solutions before they were built, and others that have been converted after opening in response to staff mutiny. We’ve also found highly successful examples of ABW spaces for professional staff – space efficient, with dense activity and increased connections between colleagues. And we have spoken to innovative space management teams with comprehensive shared workspace policies who have made small gains in new projects. ABW for academics is tantalisingly close, but notoriously elusive.

Campus Intuition has heard from several estate teams that “the staff aren’t turning up” to new shared workspaces, but it’s important to note that they are not turning up to their traditional office settings either. The recent pandemic-induced shift to more working from home is hard to disentangle from a longstanding reluctance to share space in academic workplaces. But disentangle it we must!

Poor leadership is often blamed for the disintegration of ABW fit outs for academics, but if it is working in professional settings, there is more to this ubiquitous challenge than that. What project proponents express as essential ingredients in projects of this nature (high quality pilots, strong change management, having leadership clearly on board) help, but still aren't delivering the expected vision. We need to understand the failures more fully to move toward better space utilisation. It is possible that ABW is not the answer, just as it is possible that universities have reached peak space utilisation, as unpalatable as that may be.

Workspace policies are evolving and universities are trialling new approaches for academics that include not only ABW, but also time-share offices, booking systems, neighbourhood zones, student/staff co-location – you name it, it’s out there. Sharing space is the aim, but to get there, universities must share their ideas, successes and failures. If you know of (or have implemented) a new academic workplace idea, please share your experiences for the benefit of overwrought universities estate teams everywhere.

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