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My No Office Experiment
July 22, 2014 - 9:00pm

I’m here to discuss with you my six month experiment of having no office. Going officeless.

But first, I want to stipulate a two things about campus offices:

1. Everyone who teaches should have a private office. A private office is the best place to meet with students and collaborate with colleagues.

2. 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 each and 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 the office would have had to be on another part of campus, and I thought it was important that I physically locate with my new colleagues. 

I thought it important that I figure out how to be a presence around DCAL, listening to hallway conversations and chatting with faculty, staff and students as they came by for talks, consultations, and meetings.

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 comfortable couches and chairs, and a big table for folks to sit and work and talk.   The DCAL space is amongst my favorite space on all of campus, and I wanted to be around as much as possible to interact with everyone that came through our doors.

Luckily, the openness and flexibility of the DCAL space means that even without a separate office there is always space 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 should need to have a meeting.

The other immeasurable advantage of our DCAL space is the fact that we are located within the Baker-Berry (main academic) Library.  Steps outside of the door of DCAL is the Baker Main Hall, a wonderful open space that once contained the card catalog but that now offers a wonderful array of comfortable furniture and tables.  

One unexpected benefit of not having an office is the opportunity to see the world through student eyes.  

Whenever I do not have a meeting, and it does not make sense to hang out at DCAL, I’ll wander around Baker-Berry Library looking for a place to set up shop.  

Some times this will mean grabbing a table or a chair in Baker-Berry Main Hall, but if I’m looking for more quiet I’ll find a desk or study carrel in the stacks or on a higher library floor.  

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 in 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 person’s office with whom I am meeting.  

There is something nice about always coming to you - it seems to set the right tone.  A plus is that I get to see lots and lots of offices.  I love looking at the books that people stack on their shelves and their desks.  The pictures of family.  The diplomas and awards and certificates.  

The other positive of 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 pro to being officeless 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 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.

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. These are usually scheduled ahead of time, and often involve screens as well as phones.  

My tactic has been to try and schedule these meetings first thing in the morning or late in the day.  These are the times when I can usually book a conference room.   

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 was ever renovated?  Probably not.

Is the officeless life for everyone?  Definitely not.

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

Have you ever thought about becoming officeless? 


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