Vox Populi: My No-Office Experiment

Vox Populi is Dartmouth Now’s opinion department. It includes commentary written by members of the Dartmouth community that is intended to inform and enrich public conversation. The opinions expressed in these essays are the writers’ own.

Joshua Kim is Dartmouth’s director of digital learning initiatives.

 

“One unexpected benefit of not having an office is the opportunity to see the world through students’ eyes,” says Joshua Kim. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

 

I’m here to discuss with you my six-month experiment of having no office. But first, I want to point out two things about campus offices:

  • Everyone who teaches should have a private office. A private office is the best place to meet with students and collaborate with colleagues.
  • I am a realist about the move to open offices for many academic staff. Open (and shared) offices can be done poorly or done well, but they are mostly done for reasons of costs. I’d rather that everyone had their own office with a door, but if the choice is spending money on bricks-and-mortar or spending money on people, I’ll choose the people every time.

Before I discuss my ongoing no-office experiment, a little context is in order.

I was offered an office when I started my new gig as the director of digital learning initiatives at our Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL).

The challenge is that we are currently out of office space in the place where DCAL is located, so my office would have been in another part of campus, and I thought it important to be physically located among my new colleagues.

The other thing that you need to know about DCAL is that it is located in an absolutely stunning wing of our main academic library.

We have a beautiful seminar/classroom for our programming and events, an inviting sitting area with comfortable couches and chairs, and a big table at which folks can sit and work and talk. The DCAL space is among my favorite spaces on campus, and I wanted to be around as much as possible to interact with everyone who came through our doors.

Luckily, the openness and flexibility of the DCAL space mean that even without a separate office there is always a place to sit and work. Not having a desk or a door is less of a hardship when there is a comfortable couch and a big table. Quiet space is available if the DCAL classroom is not in use, and the room is wired for audio and video conferencing if I need to hold a meeting.

An immeasurable advantage of our DCAL space is the fact that we are located within Baker-Berry Library. Just a few steps from door of DCAL is the Baker Main Hall, a wonderful open space that once contained the card catalog but now offers a wonderful array of comfortable places to sit.

This shift to working in the same way that our students study has been eye-opening.

Most times in the year I am able to quickly find a quiet place in which to plug in my laptop and work. During the busiest times of the year, such as before exams, it takes some exploring to find an unused nook or a free desk.

One upside that I’ve discovered about not having my own office is that I always go to the office of my colleagues for meetings. Since I’m always mobile, grabbing space to work with my laptop and backpack, it is easy to get up and walk to the office of the person with whom I am meeting.

A plus is that I get to see lots and lots of offices. I love looking at the books people stack on their shelves and their desks. The pictures of family. The diplomas and awards and certificates.

The other positive thing about not having my own office is that I’m much more likely to ask for walking meetings. With no default place to meet, it seems easier to suggest that we walk and talk.

The final benefit may be visibility. I’ve had to think carefully about how I can be as visible as possible on campus. Walking around to colleagues’ offices is one way to be present. I’m much more likely to drop in and chat than I was in the past.

I’ll also try to strategically find places to work at high-traffic areas. Hoping that people will stop and talk as they walk by means deciding to work on things that can be interrupted, such as catching up on e-mail or making to-do lists, etc.

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Now for the negatives.

The big downside of not having a permanent office has been dealing with phone calls.

E-mail and texting has eliminated most off-the-cuff phone calls. These one-to-one phone calls have been replaced by phone and web meetings, usually scheduled ahead of time, and often involving screens as well as phones.

One change that I have made is that my mobile phone is my official office phone. In this way I’m always reachable by phone, and the challenge becomes finding a quiet enough place to talk on my iPhone where I won’t disturb those around me.

A second challenge is that I sometimes miss having a place of my own. An office or a desk is a tangible symbol of belonging.

Would I turn down an office if DCAL were ever renovated? Probably not.

Is the officeless life for everyone? Definitely not.

I view these past six months as an experiment—and a chance to experience a different way of working.

This column was first published July 22, 2014, by Inside Higher Ed.