Lecturers warm to hot desking

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Telford College has a futuristic new building, and with it comes some radical changes to working practices. Fiona MacLeod reports

It cost pound;70 million, yet most staff, the principal included, have no desk or office. Drinking coffee is banned from desks. And the entire building offers less space than the existing four campuses.

So what's the point of the new Telford College, which is being officially opened today by Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister?

Principal Ray Harris is clearly excited after months of watching the building grow on the site of a former gasworks in Edinburgh.

Looking down a futuristic glass and metal walkway, he is suddenly preoccupied by seeing it awash with some of the college's 20,000 students.

"That's what I've been waiting for - to see it get busy. It's buzzing," he enthuses.

Overlooking the Forth, the new college has futuristic features such as windows which open and close automatically according to the temperature, metal window shades which descend if the sun is glaring, and roofing made of the same transparent material used in the Eden Project in Cornwall.

People are at the heart of this project, from the "learning streets", where students can slip out of classes into computer stations in wide corridors, to "touch down" stations for lecturers to use their laptops between lessons.

Convenience and movement are pivotal to the project, Mr Harris says. "I worked at five different desks yesterday, but the good news is I sat next to five different colleagues." This may, or may not, be good news for them.

Not having an office or a desk might send most college principals into a panic, but Mr Harris is revelling in a new-found freedom.

"I was not getting out of the office," he revealed. "I was responding immediately to emails and everything else that happened. I was working long hours. There were things about our offices that were affecting our work productivity."

Mr Harris took the opportunity of Scotland's biggest further education project to change that. Some of the 600 staff, such as those in human resources, have their own desk, but most have a locker for personal belongings and theoretically could sit at a different desk every day.

Lecturers and managers have all been issued with laptops which can be logged into the college's system anywhere, from the textiles studio to the staff coffee room, instead of being allocated an office or a desk.

It has saved both space and money, with staff sharing a common space over two floors containing a mix of traditional desks, touch down stations for laptop sessions, meeting areas, and a coffee room.

Staff are banned from drinking tea or coffee at their desks to encourage proper breaks, and there are no pot plants or family photos on people's desks.

Mr Harris refutes concerns that it has dehumanised the work space. "People can download a picture as their screensaver and it will appear on whatever computer they are working on."

He adds:"Some people have asked rather than taking a break, why can't they have tea or coffee and keep a meeting going? I suggested their meetings may be going on a bit too long.

"We are providing people with the tools they need to do their jobs.

"I have a lot less paper. I only check my emails twice a day and I get more work done. I meet more people and, surprisingly, I am getting a lunch break, and I think I have met more students."

Mr Harris believes the system will work. "I know colleagues who were incredibly sceptical, but they are smiling at me now."

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