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Goodbye walls, goodbye hierarchy

When Annette Zera said her college should consider open plan offices, she meant that even she, the principle, should be included. But how would staff react to their boss working in their midst?

Three years ago, I attended a seminar held by the architects DEGW with our head of human resources and head of estates. The idea was to change the way we looked at the relationship between the mission of our college and the way we use space.

The mission of the college is short: "Raising achievement, removing barriers for everyone."

The first part is self-explanatory; the second expresses our intention to support learners to move from the college into jobs, further training, higher education, or whatever they want next in life.

The barriers faced by students in Tower Hamlets are considerable; in fact, these obstacles are physically symbolised by the unfinished bridge that spans the dual carriageway behind our main site, which divides acres of poor public housing from the towers around Canary Wharf.

But less obvious are the barriers inside the college that need to be removed. In this context, "removing barriers" expresses an ambition to work in an organisation with as little hierarchy as possible as well as minimal bureaucracy, no discriminatory behaviour, no departmental divisions and excellent access and communication.

Easier said than done!

The architects at DEGW introduced us to the idea of using space to underpin these ambitions, and we came to realise that by changing the way we use space, we could change some of the ways we work together. By knocking down walls and opening out rooms, we could remove some of our bureaucratic and hierarchical barriers.

We decided that the right place to start work with ourselves in the senior management team.

DEGW explained that two mistakes are usually made whenever a senior management team opts for open-plan arrangements. Firstly, they tend not to involve their teams from the very beginning.

To learn from this, we set up a task group of representatives from those staff that would be coming together: human resources, estates, finance, management information systems and the principal's office.

Members of the group visited some open-plan offices to find out what worked and, crucially, what didn't. They saw good arrangements at a large firm of chartered surveyors and learned much from the chaos (caused partly by lack of storage space) at an even larger transport company.

The group then drafted a protocol that addressed the main issues; these were discussed, modified and agreed by the 40 staff who were due to move into the new space. Staff were anxious to control noise and unwanted interruptions, and to allow people to concentrate.

The second common mistake we were warned about was in the layout of the office. It often happens that the four corners of an otherwise open space become virtual offices for the most senior staff; thus do they keep walls around themselves while others share the common area in the middle.

This, we were told, would eventually undermine any benefits created by bringing people together. So in our office design - created by our own estates team, not architects - we followed DEGW's advice. All staff share the open-plan space, regardless of seniority. Everyone enjoys the same facilities: one and a half metres of desk with three drawers, a chair, a phone, a computer and as much filing or storage space as the job demands.

We have acentral resource room with photocopiers, scanners and, most importantly, fresh coffee, tea and water.

Around the office there are small tables for impromptu meetings. There are bookable, enclosed meeting rooms and very small rooms ("pods") for quiet one-to-one conversations.

Visitors are often surprised to find that the principal and other senior staff do not have their own private space; they wonder about issues of confidentiality and security, particularly in relation to personnel matters or dealings with cash. But in our experience these things do not cause any problem for staff.

On the contrary, the benefits of using space to encourage an open management culture far outweigh any difficulties, and this kind of approach appears to be increasingly commonplace in many organisations - inside and outside education.

If such practice is becoming more widespread, it is because it works. I wouldn't go back to having my private space for anything. I enjoy being in the heart of a busy office and feeling people working around me.

The atmosphere is calm, quiet and green - there are lots of plants. I feel quite easy about sitting close to people doing a variety of jobs at different levels in the organisation, all of them important, and any initial concerns that staff may have had about having the principal in their midst have, I think, faded by now.

Issues of confidentiality are not an issue: besides, they can be dealt with elsewhere if necessary. Each of us can see at a glance if the people we need to speak to are at their desks, but this doesn't mean we interrupt each other when we're working. We all have a red flag that we put on our desks if we absolutely don't want to be disturbed.

A year after setting up the administrative office, we suggested to lecturers that they might also find open-plan office space a good working arrangement.

Initially, the idea was met with some scepticism. People were concerned about noise and interruptions when they were concentrating on preparation and marking; others were worried about confidentiality.

After some (never enough) consultation we went ahead and introduced open-plan arrangements for lecturing staff in our largest building. It was not without difficulties and we didn't get everything right; in fact we got quite a bit wrong in the first instance.

Our limited number of computers were badly positioned, and there was insufficient storage space, but we've learnt from these mistakes and the second round of workroom refurbishment has gone well.

The opening up of offices and workrooms has taught us a lot, and we are now more confident about our use of space generally. In particular, we have become much more adventurous about the design and development of circulation space, although we continue to get things wrong.

While learning from mistakes is tiresome, learning from success feels great, and it is good to work in a space that reflects the college's philosophy and aims.

Working in an open-plan environment helps communication, feels more open and removes barriers between people. These factors no doubt contributed to the top grade with which management and resources were recognised in our recent inspection.

Naturally, we'd be pleased to talk and work with other colleges that share our ambitions of becoming - one day soon - a learning organisation in the fullest sense.

Annette Zera is the principal of Tower Hamlets College in east London

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