Here’s a stat I’d really like to see: how much time do professors spend in their offices?
There’s been an enormous shift in the way people work over the past thirty years. Digitization of documents and the availability of remote access computing, the growth of email, the explosion of doctoral students available to do the research grunt work, the decreasing importance of collaborating with local colleagues, and increasing importance of collaborating with people around the world – it’s all given professors a lot more flexibility in deciding where to undertake their work.
Now, this flexibility likely hasn’t had an equal effect across disciplines. In sciences – especially the wet ones – many professors have offices tied to their laboratories, and I don’t have the sense that they are spending any less time in their laboratories than they used to. In social sciences and law, on the other hand, where outside consulting work is more common, and the means of academic communication is more journal-based than monograph-based, there’s a lot less reason to be tied to your office.
Other factors are at work, of course. There are personal preferences. Some people like working at home, and take advantage of flexibility to do so; others prefer keeping their home and work spaces quite separate. Junior faculty probably have a greater interest in being seen at work than senior faculty. And of course – this being Canada, and academic life being subject to collective agreements to a degree pretty much unknown anywhere else – some collective agreements will stipulate minimum office hours.
All of this is to say that it’s difficult to make generalizations about use of office space/time. And I admit that I have no data on this at all, but I would guess that outside the sciences, there is a very significant portion of the faculty whose time in the office is fifteen hours per week or less. And this makes me wonder: to the extent that this is true, why the hell do universities spend so much on office space? If you think about a typical non-science faculty – Arts, Business, Education, etc. – and you divide up their total usable space (excluding things like washrooms, and hallways, and the like), offices probably take up about two-thirds of it. And while many profs make copious use of their offices, in many cases these offices get used less than half the time. Why?
It’s difficult to know what to do about this: taking away office space – even the little-unused type – would set off riots. But if I were designing a university from scratch, I think I’d do everything I could to minimize the use of dedicated offices. Provide as much shared office space as possible. Have dedicated shared spaces for meetings with students. Use modular walls to reconfigure spaces as necessary, and offer bonuses to those who use less space. Pretty much anything to reduce the use of space and the associated utilities costs that go with them.
Profs are becoming more mobile, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the legacy costs of the days when most work was done in offices are quite significant. Finding a way to reduce them over time – sans riots, of course – is worth a try.