The Space Conundrum

Czech_Ricciotti.open workspace

By: Jane Czech, MS, MBA, chief administrative officer, Department of Neurology, University of California San Francisco

These days, the value of space seems to be competing with the value of our “human resources.”

Not long ago, human resources were considered the most valued asset of any organization; now space seems to be competing as the most valued asset.  Are the two mutually exclusive?  It’s all in how you go about it and your true motivation. If the motivation is to get the most people in the least square footage, and it’s a top down decision, then the people (staff/faculty) are going to feel like they’re not the most valued asset. If, on the other hand, people are asked to design a space that works for them, within certain parameters (and constraints), then it can have a very positive impact. It’s clear that people don’t mind change as long as they have some control over it.

In the recent article by Ricciotti and colleagues, we see the participative approach of a multidisciplinary group designing its own space, based on its own real needs. They seem happy with the results. It’s a case study for true involvement; the outcome was not predetermined. The lack of space was combined with the desire for a more collaborative and innovative environment. Could this be replicated as a “turn-key” approach for clinic design, or does success depend upon participation in the design process?

Working in a major academic center as the administrator of a large department, I have seen many permutations of the space conundrum. I am writing this post, for example, from my desk in a research building that opened two years ago. During the years of planning, we used the current “best practice” of co-locating people in neighborhoods for maximum collaboration. We knew from experience that most faculty would rather have a small office than no office, and we wanted offices to be 70 square feet. However, at that time, the university standard was 120–150 square feet for a faculty member (depending on the individual’s rank).

How much has changed in a few years! As I look outside my window, I see the construction of a new seven story faculty office complex designed as “activity-based” workspace. This new seven story building will house approximately 1,500 faculty and staff in assigned open workstations, with access to other space as needed, based on the activity. This sounds exciting, but there are faculty protests, internal blogs with entries categorized by type of concern, and free floating anxiety about the new space and what it means about the value of the faculty. To most, they feel devalued by the new approach to their space. Objectively speaking, there will be plenty of space, with the workstations, focus rooms, huddle rooms, conference rooms, and other shared spaces. However, the faculty are losing a very precious commodity—the private office.

Now comes the fun part! The private faculty offices in our current building? People are doubling up. Why? To make room for the people they want to work with. All of the offices are full. If you want to have someone join your lab, are you willing to share your office? The answer is yes, when given the choice. Sometimes an office becomes available, but the faculty don’t want to give up sharing. It works for their activities to share an office. Big neighborhoods full of individual computational workstations? Faculty want to rip it out and put in a more collaborative design, with couches and interactive zones. They want to connect, when given the choice. However, for faculty and staff to buy in, the space must be designed based upon their perception of the needs of their activities, not a mass produced solution to the space crunch. The process described by Ricciotti colleagues led to a very open, collegial, transparent design, and it reflects the needs and values of the group. They ask the question, “Is it generalizable?” Certainly the more that people share their experiences, the more things will become routine options to consider. Clinic, research, and office design have all evolved over time to the new “normal.” Time will tell if open space design will become the new standard for academic space.

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