University of Essex: space and ‘smart working’

University of Essex staff are increasingly concerned about the implications of messaging from senior management that proposes or implies substantial changes to the spaces in which staff will be expected to carry out their work in the coming months and years.

It is essential that we acknowledge the serious short and long term negative consequences for scholarship, education, collegiality, and the student experience at Essex that significant changes to staff workplaces threaten, as laid out in an earlier document entitled UCU ‘Statement on Space Allocation and ‘Smart Working’ at Essex.’ We have not seen adequate consideration of these potential negative consequences in the principles and objectives proposed for guiding future changes to staff working conditions, or in many of the changes to staff working spaces that have already occurred.

In light of this, we the undersigned propose that the University of Essex commits to the following principles and objectives, which address the potential major risks associated with changes to styles of working and the spaces in which we do them:

  1. That assignments to shared/flexible working spaces are voluntary and coupled with guaranteed protections to offset the loss of productivity that may result. These protections should include guaranteed days without on-campus obligations in any given week, guaranteed private working spaces during on-campus days, guaranteed secure storage spaces, greater control over teaching timetables to maximize the chances of access to work-conducive spaces, and blended/hybrid meetings by default.
  2. That the University prioritizes answering the need for work-appropriate spaces by adopting, as a matter of principle, a commitment to providing access to dedicated individual, opaque, sound-proofed offices in the near future to all academic and academic-related professional services staff who ask to be provided with one; that the University commits to a timeframe within which that principle will be made a reality. This is in keeping with the motion passed by Senate (22/01/20) in which an aspiration for all academic staff to be allocated a single office was endorsed.
  3. That homeworking will be fully financially compensated (I.e. that a homeworking stipend be developed that addresses the increased costs to staff with regard to electricity, heat, adequate internet, degradation of home computer equipment, office furniture that meets health & safety standards, etc). Tax rebates are regressive and there are some costs for which they cannot be claimed. Since many staff cycle to work, no corresponding savings have been made on commuting. The homeworking stipend should apply to staff working either wholly or partially at home.
  4. That the environmental impact of changes to working spaces or styles takes full account of the environmental costs of these changes; staff point out that “sending staff home to heat their own working spaces and power up their own computers and broadband hubs seems like a carbon footprint-outsourcing manoeuvre that… does not help meet the [environmental] target”. An honest and thorough accounting of the environmental costs of university policy and proposed policy changes is required.
  5. That the University makes a clear commitment to ensuring working environments are safe (both physically and from excessive stressors) in the long term, particularly ‘home’ spaces, which often do not comply with health & safety requirements for healthy working.
  6. That increased campus cleaning protocols be implemented and maintained post-COVID. Staff had already been complaining pre-COVID of inadequate cleaning of workspaces (along with other shared spaces such as kitchens and toilets). The need for more cleaning only increases if multiple staff members will be ‘hotdesking’ or sharing spaces in other ways.
  7. That equality and diversity considerations be embedded in thinking on this issue from the start, and that a detailed Equality Impact Assessment be undertaken with regard to the changes that were introduced due to COVID, along with any further changes to working spaces or working formats expected to last in the longer term.
  8. That the University commits to addressing productivity-lessening structural/processing issues that will only be exacerbated if the student body continues to grow and dedicated on-campus work spaces are disrupted.[1]
  9. That the University undertakes a critical review of the pace and scope of its student growth goals, informed throughout by significant consultation with staff of all levels.
  10. That the University acknowledges that loss of dedicated, appropriate workspaces is a degradation of staff work conditions and therefore requires meaningful consultation and negotiation with the trade unions as a prerequisite to implementation of any change.

Though it is clear that the University of Essex community is facing financial and environmental constraints on providing appropriate workspaces for staff in a rapidly expanding university, those constraints must be balanced against the equally pressing constraint that staff cannot do their jobs unless they are provided with the spaces in which that work is possible. And it is the staff members themselves who should be recognized as the authorities on what counts as appropriate spaces in which to do their work.
Yours sincerely

University of Essex staff

[1] These include: improving coordination across different parts of the university; undertaking strategic planning that consults with staff at all levels; making the implementation of government policies more light-touch; avoiding frequent changes to technologies/systems; eradicating overlapping platforms where possible, and consulting in meaningful ways about the processes/systems/platforms with the staff who will be working with them on a daily basis. Staff report again and again that excessive time is spent learning and using new systems/processes that are not fit for purpose. They also report that excessive time is spent checking and supervising work that staff can and should be trusted to get on with as responsible professionals.

University of Essex: space allocation and 'smart working'

We the undersigned propose that the University of Essex commits to the above principles and objectives, which address the potential major risks associated with changes to styles of working and the spaces in which we do them.

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Signed:
3 Irene McMullin SPAH
2 David English estate management
1 Caroline Kay England