Working from Home and (vs?) the Goods of Academic Community

How much time do you spend working in your campus office? Do you do most of your work from home? At a coffee shop? And how are changes in where people work affecting university life?

Deborah Fitzgerald recently stepped down after 10 years as a dean at MIT, returning to her faculty position in the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program there. In a thoughtful essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Our Hallways Are Too Quiet,” she reports on observing something different now: no one is around.

Entire departments can seem like dead zones, and whole days can pass with only a glimpse of a faculty member as someone comes to campus to meet a student, attend a meeting, or teach a class. The halls are eerily quiet. Students, having figured this out, are also absent. Only the staff are present.

Why is this? Part of the answer is that there are distractions from work there: disruptive pop-ins by colleagues, noise, faculty feuds, and “the social demands of departmental appearances.” Part of the answer is technology that makes it easier to work from anywhere. And part comes from relaxed expectations of physical presence generated from attempts to make academic life family friendly.

Fitzgerald acknowledges that there are good aspects to not having to be on campus. But there is a kind of collective action problem.

The notion that no one really needs to work on the campus, however, has significant structural consequences for departments. One faculty member working at home a few days a week is barely noticeable. Nearly all of them working at home most days is far more serious.

Why is it a problem?

Without [face-to-face] interactions… what keeps junior faculty engaged? How do we communicate values? Or share readings, provocative conversations, and inspiration? Why should young academics try to build a professional life in a place where there is no one to talk to? Students, and especially graduate students, face similar questions. What does it mean these days to be a member of the academic community?…

Conversation matters. Personal contact matters. It is very hard to build relationships with people we do not see in person, and such relationships are the bedrock of so much else that matters on any campus.

Hiring new faculty members, promoting and tenuring them, celebrating their accomplishments—all of those things are more difficult when we don’t regularly relate to one another. We are losing our ability to work through our differences, learn how to compromise, build new initiatives, and fight our common battles.

We seem to be losing our sense of the commons, and perhaps our empathy for the trials and tribulations of academic life. In privileging the individual faculty member’s particular circumstances and preferences, we may be threatening the department itself.

Do readers agree that faculty are spending less time on campus? That it is problematic?

More constructively: what does your department do to maintain and promote the goods of academic community?

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asst prof
asst prof
7 years ago

I am a woman with several small children, and I do not work from home, because there’s a ton of stuff to do at home, so no work would get done if I stayed home. I’m at work during school and daycare hours, and I appreciate the flexibility offered by my schedule so I can not-work (try and grade?) from home when the kids are sick or have vacation days. But in my experience, it’s people with young or school-age children who are generally on campus more, not less, although perhaps absent more from evening events and lectures. So I wouldn’t locate the origins of this phenomenon with “family-friendliness”, except perhaps as correlation — the same lax environment which allows me to cancel office hours and stay home when my child is ill (and is thus “family-friendly”) is the same environment which allows a person to only come into work to teach.

7 years ago

Many schools charge lots of money for faculty parking passes. If you wanted your faculty to come and work in the office, shouldn’t you offer them free parking?

Jc Beall
7 years ago

UCONN has a nice practice of setting Wednesday aside for a (wildly productive, wonderfully interesting) brown-bag seminar, in which faculty and grad students (and visiting fellows) present in-progress work. Because everybody is there, Wednesdays wind up being days of lingering hallway talk (‘hallway philosophy’) for folks who don’t need to rush off to teach. This practice accommodates the work-at-home researchers while also bringing faces to hallways on a regular and predictable (and predictably nice) way.

That’s all I have to say about that.

7 years ago

There are other ways to build a strong community that don’t involve working in the same place. In (some) non-NorthAmerican countries, universities don’t have the physical space to allow the entire faculty to be present and working on campus at the same time. In these countries both faculty and grad students work from home. However, they meet at classes, conferences and departamental activities, and the bonding takes place in hallway chats before and beer/coffee time at nearby places after. It’s not the end of academic bonding, it is the beginning of a new way of construing an academic community (more adapted to new technologies)..

Greg Gauthier
7 years ago

I am not in academia. However, working in IT and software development for the last 25 years, I think I can say a few things that might be helpful, with regard to the question.

* If you work in an excessively hierarchical, paternalistic, or cynical environment, the yearning to escape the confines of your coworkers can become overwhelming. Rather than lobbying for a work-from-home or remote-work policy, just find a new place to work. In the long run, you’ll be better off.

* On the same thought: I don’t have any direct experience with academia (as I said), but I wonder if those ghost town hallways described by Deborah Fitzgerald are not because of how popular WFH is, but rather because of how UNpopular it is to be working for top-heavy, officious institutions like universities, these days.

* Working from home (I did it for almost 5 years, at one firm) might seem like some kind of dream job, and at first it does start out feeling that way. But very soon, the isolation, the blending of free time and “work” time, and the lack of access to resources, will drive you to madness.

* Everyone complains about the “distractions at work”, when they want to lobby for remote-work. But the distractions at home are a thousand times worse. Nobody wants to admit it, but there’s a reason why the phrase “work from home” is often accompanied by air-quotes.

* There is a lot to be said for what Fitzgerald observed in her essay. When I was working exclusively from home, it was painfully difficult to do things like collaborate on difficult projects because free, lateral, spontaneous communication was virtually impossible. The idea of a “water cooler conversation” is completely dead in a remote work situation. Everything has to be scheduled and scripted, because otherwise, you’re forcing an interruption of someone at their desk (via chat or skype or whatever). This dramatically slowed the progress of software development.

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
7 years ago

I very much prefer to do my research work, my teaching prep and my marking at home, and I think I do them best in the splendid isolation of my study. But at Otago as at UConn, we have a set of customs which prevents the staff from becoming too isolated and self-absorbed and the department from becoming too deserted.

1) We have a weekly seminar (on Wednesdays) staff and senior students are expected to attend

2) Following the seminar we often take the speaker out to lunch or to dinner in the evenings. When we take a visiting speaker out to dinner we try to pick a restaurant that the graduate students can afford.

3) Wednesday evenings from about 5:00 till 7:00, staff and students tend to meet at the pub (it is not compulsory but most staff put in an appearance), It’s a family-friendly pub so people can bring their kids if necessary and tea is available if you don’ t like to drink.

4) The post-grads have a seminar of their own on Fridays which staff often attend. The seminarists often adjourn to the pub thereafter.

5) Staff have office hours a couple of hours per week in which (unsurpisingly) we have to be in our offices to talk to students.

7) Some staff meet outside office hours for instance to go for walks together in the hills. Talking shop is not excluded.

8) We have to come in to teach our classes and when we do, we often hang around afterwards to transact bits of business and to talk to people

It seems to me that with customs such as these and the right kind of departmental culture it is possible to have the best of both worlds: home alone time for those that like to work that way, but enough conviviality to sustain a community of enquiry.

William Menke
6 years ago

Attendance I my university building has dwindled to a Wednesday afternoon and Friday afternoon affair, times when we have seminars and group meetings. I miss the 80’s and 90″s, when the building was an exciting place to work. But the grad students and postdocs seem adapted to it and are still churning out superlative work. So I view the phenomenon as one the rest of us had just better get used to. It does imply we had better rethink academic buildings, since spending money to create empty offices is silly.