The Time Is Now to Create High-Performing Faculty Spaces

Increasingly, leading institutions are recognizing that the time is now to focus on workspaces that allow their faculty members to perform research and other academic activities effectively while simultaneously nurturing meaningful relationships with their students.

Today’s knowledge economy and the redefined skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce have led colleges and universities around the world to shift to a more 21st-century learning model in which education spaces support active learning.

But what about the faculty who teach those students? Like the spaces in which they teach, faculty members have seen their work evolve to include a wide range of different responsibilities, pedagogies, and tools. For the most part, though, faculty workspaces have been a low priority on the campus and have remained largely ignored… at least until recently.

Increasingly, leading institutions are recognizing that the time is now to focus on workspaces that allow their faculty members to perform research and other academic activities effectively while simultaneously nurturing meaningful relationships with their students. These institutions are searching for a balance that enables them to develop faculty spaces that are as high-performing as the people who work within them.

Current State of the Faculty Office

For as long as most of us can remember, the basic form and function of faculty workspaces have remained the same. Typically, the faculty office is little more than a small, private space which allows professors to focus on their research and advise their students.

Designing Faculty Spaces

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK/Monkey Business Images

Strangely enough, while businesses and other organizations outside of academia have made moves to optimize the space they use, often shrinking the space devoted to individual offices to accommodate varying work styles and encourage collaboration, the overall space devoted to faculty offices has actually increased more than any other space on the average college campus. Despite that growth, these offices tend to be some of the most underutilized, ineffective spaces at any college or university.

What has changed? For starters, an increasing number of faculty members are coming to campus only when they need to teach or hold office hours. Technology advancements allow educators to complete classwork from anywhere. As a result, faculty members are no longer tethered to a physical location to teach, provide counsel to students, or reference research tools like bulky desktop computers or books.

Despite this, faculty offices, for the most part, have been designed to meet the same demands for space and privacy that were required a generation ago. Typically furnished with basic features like a desk and limited storage, most faculty offices are not conducive to collaboration with peers.

Moreover, depending on the age of the facility and the amount of available space, it is not uncommon to find faculty offices for the same department scattered apart from each other throughout the campus. Such an arrangement usually translates into a lack of opportunity for faculty to connect with each other. This, in turn, leads to isolation and undermines both casual interaction and the ability to create a collective intelligence—all of which can significantly impact the success of the faculty and the institution as a whole.

Limited Faculty/Student Interaction

In a similar way, faculty-student interactions are critical to the success of any institution. At a time when colleges are aggressively working to keep students engaged, making it easy for educators to get to know their students outside of the classroom would seem to be an absolute necessity. Such interaction, after all, not only improves student motivation, but also encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.

Unfortunately, even scheduled faculty office hours are no longer a viable pathway to student engagement. On average, just slightly more than half of faculty members connect with students during scheduled office hours, while only 36 percent report engaging with students through informal meetings outside the office. Given those numbers, it should come as no surprise that almost 80 percent of faculty state they most commonly interact with students via email.

For their part, students often don’t take advantage of faculty office hours. This may be due to inconvenient availability, a perception that meeting with faculty is unnecessary, or even a feeling of intimidation. Regardless, faculty office hours represent a benefit to both faculty members and students which ultimately factors into the institution’s overall ability to produce successful graduates.

Developing a High-Performing Faculty Space

With all of that in mind, today’s faculty spaces—much like office environments—are desperately in need of a transformation. To be effective, they must be flexible and specifically designed to support:

  • A range of thinking modes—To be productive and creative, faculty spaces need to support the full range of thinking modes they engage in, from concentration and rejuvenation to creativity and collaboration.
  • Different work activities and styles that vary by individual and department—Once a straightforward profession, faculty now include a widening hierarchy of researchers, tenured professors, adjunct positions, emeritus faculty, and graduate students who not only perform different work according to their level and specialization, but also have their own preferences regarding how they perform that work.
  • Comfortable student interactions—Faculty/student interactions can have a positive influence on both parties by boosting cognitive growth, development, and retention. Students who have close, positive, and supportive relationships with their instructors are also more likely to attain higher levels of achievement.
  • Facilitation of creating and sharing knowledge—Work spaces should nurture the sharing and transferring of knowledge between peers, students, and departments for the benefit of each other and the institution. Collaborating in a range of faculty work spaces helps to foster the growth of collective intelligence and a sense of community within the institution.
  • Expression of identity and personality—Faculty view their work space as an opportunity to express their identity to collaborators and peers. Personal items like photographs, awards, and memorabilia create a personalized space that illustrates who they are. Psychologically, faculty members often see their private spaces as a status symbol, something they earned, or a way to stay connected after retirement.

Changing Work Requires an Evolution of Space

Essentially, faculty spaces are highly specialized workplaces that need to support a range of focused thinking modes and work styles. By developing thoughtful environments that are designed as a holistic, integrated system, institutions can give faculty members the space they need to effectively perform their work while cultivating meaningful relationships with students and peers.