Universities have reached a ‘working from home’ tipping point. What does this mean for on-campus office space?
By Michaela Sheahan, Senior Researcher. Image by Tom Ross.
Universities are facing a range of significant funding, pedagogical and space challenges as COVID-19 continues to make its mark on enrolments, teaching methods and work behaviours. In response, university estates planners are re-evaluating how to manage campus assets efficiently and effectively for students and staff without compromising the delivery of high quality learning and research.
These are not new challenges in the higher education sector, but the pandemic has brought them into sharp focus. Hassell conducted research with both academics and facilities managers this year as they began to negotiate their way into the post-pandemic landscape. Our data shows us that change is indeed coming, but that it will be slow and deliberate rather than disruptive.
HEARING FROM BOTH SIDES
In April 2021, we surveyed 570 academics from Singapore, the UK, US and Australia about their work during the pandemic and expectations for their future workplaces. Around the same time, we also collaborated with the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) in the UK to survey and then talk with facilities management teams from 54 higher education institutions. We wanted to understand more about their plans for the return of staff and students to campus.
This valuable cross-sectional sample of experiences and viewpoints will help inform higher education designs and decision making in campus asset management in the coming years.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF A CAMPUS?
At the heart of both these research projects is an important question – if so many university’s main functions could continue at home during lockdowns, what is the purpose of a campus now?
At its simplest, a campus brings people together to work, learn and socialise – ‘people-work’. Seventy five per cent of surveyed academics believe their connections to colleagues suffered while they worked off campus, as did their connections to students.
“I want my academic life back, 100 per cent.”
Academic survey participant
Most students and staff that we surveyed told us they were eager to get back to something resembling the old order – but with a few convenient modifications. Overall, they want to do their ‘people-work’ on campus and some of their ‘paper-work’ at home. Campus planners are now busily considering what those modifications might be, and how to deliver them fairly.
SPACE UNDER PRESSURE – OR NOT?
Facilities managers and academics believe on-campus office space is likely to decrease as blended working and online teaching increase. Facilities managers also think teaching space will come under pressure, a view not supported by academics who believe it remains an essential component of campus life.
Whichever way it goes, it’s likely that more space will be set aside on campus for study and socialising – the ‘people-work’ so fundamental to higher education. As for ‘paper-work’, our research suggests that on average, academics want to spend around one day less on campus than they did before. While this varies by gender and by faculty, it suggests that a quarter of academics are open to sharing workspaces in return for more time working from home. Have we reached the tipping point in the long stand-off over private academic office allocations?
“Workspaces are pivoting towards social interaction, with quiet, focused work moving towards being more of a home-based task.”
Facility manager, AUDE report
A FINE BALANCE – MADE POSSIBLE WITH DATA
Blended work, in which staff use a combination of spaces (at home, on campus and in other locations) is about to become mainstream. This won’t only affect academics, who have been able to work flexibly for some time, but also professional staff who have traditionally had limited opportunities to work from home.
This blend won’t suit all people, nor all types of work. Choice is the key, but also the challenge. Balancing individual preferences with team performance and maintaining a vibrant campus will be a difficult task. And that’s where staff engagement and data can help. As many as 86 per cent of the institutions we engaged with in the UK have already surveyed staff about their workplace preferences or strategies.
“Staff surveys have been issued in all departments, a new ways of working project team established and work started on four ‘test and learn’ spaces to try new workplace designs.”
Facility manager, AUDE report
This early research, engagement and policy development work will be crucial in understanding and identifying the opportunities for sustainable change in a sector grappling with significant external pressures. If you’re interested in the detail and the data, please follow the links to both research papers.