Saturday, March 18, 2017
Creating integrated online and on-site workspaces
Just as the borderline between classroom and online learning has become blurred so has the concept of the workplace. Technology enables many of us to work effectively from just about anywhere with decent internet access and you would think that the traditional office and the daily ritual of commuting would be on the way out. There's little sign of that but the concept needs to be redesigned.
At many universities faculty corridors are becoming rather lonely and quiet as more and more staff chose to work from home or elsewhere according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Our Hallways Are Too Quiet. One major reason for this trend is the fact that you can often work more effectively away from the office.
A big reason for decreased faculty presence in their campus offices is technology. Networked computers that allow one to write anywhere also allow us to have conversations with students and colleagues that used to take place in person. Creating new course materials and ordering books is easily done online. Cloud software has made pretty much all our work processes easily done from home, a vacation cabin, a foreign conference hotel. For many scholars, this has been a very liberating occurrence, giving them wondrous flexibility.
The growth of working in national and international projects where physical meetings are a luxury and most meetings are online means that for many people (including myself) the office has become a digital rather than a physical space. I work in many different organisations and networks and a day at the office often consists of five or six online meetings, one after the other, and my only contact with my colleagues in the building are at coffee and lunch breaks. As virtual organisations grow then the importance of the physical office space will logically decrease but this change was forecast 20 years ago and it hasn't really happened. Distance working and virtual teams sound great but many organisations are unwilling to trust their staff to work from home and in many cases office presence is demanded even if it is often not necessary. Somehow the ritual of going to the office is a hard one to break. It's partly about trust and a fear of losing control but it's also about retaining a sense of community and identity. An organisation based on solitary home workers will not generate much loyalty or sense of belonging. We need to gather somewhere to develop working relationships.
There's a similar situation when it comes to students on campus. For many it is perfectly possible to study and collaborate with colleagues from home and if lectures are recorded why come to campus at all if you don't happen to live there? Many were worried about this when more and more content went online and with today's collaborative tools you can also have close face-to-face online contact with tutors and study groups. The role of the campus is therefore being revised from being a place where you were a consumer of content in lecture halls to a place where you actively discuss, experiment and produce in flexible learning spaces. Classroom time needs to be made be unmissable, the time when you can solve problems, discuss issues in depth and carry out practical lab work that cannot be simulated. You simply have to be there.
So back to the office. The online element will continue to develop and we can't expect everyone to be at their desks from nine to five. We need to create workplaces that are worth going to but where the online element is nevertheless essential. Both the physical and the digital spaces need to be integrated. Many workplaces have become creative and flexible environments with space for teamwork, online collaboration and silent concentration but sometimes the focus is so much on the on-site work that the online element is only included in some activities rather than being ubiquitous. In the academic world however both teaching and research have traditionally been solitary activities. I suspect that this, rather than technology, is the main reason for the empty corridors mentioned in the article. Technology has simply made it easier to stay away but the tendency has always been there as long as the focus has been on the individual.
The key is more collaboration and teamwork. If course development is a team activity then the workplace needs to be designed to facilitate this. The same goes for research teams. Maybe we also need to create spaces where staff and students can mix and work together. However it's not just about the physical space. Most teams and projects will always have colleagues who are elsewhere and it's essential that the on-site and online spaces are as seamlessly connected as possible. You simply can't expect everyone to always be on-site and you will always need external expertise.
To enable this video communication needs to become even more ubiquitous so that meetings with online colleagues can be set up easily and with a good quality connection from every part of the office space. Online colleagues can then be brought into any discussion without the need to book a certain room or spend time setting up headsets or external speakers. Document sharing, collaborative writing, online work spaces and asynchronous discussion spaces also need to be standard practice. Are there ways to allow online colleagues be part of social occasions in the office? Maybe allow them to drop in on a coffee break or celebration. We can invest a lot in redesigning the physical space to facilitate collaboration but we also need to redesign the online spaces so they offer similar inspiration and ensure that the two worlds are integrated. The office space can and should be repopulated but we need to expand the concept and see the office as both a physical and a digital space.