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Campus Space Planning for Fall and Beyond

Episode 61

June 22, 2021 22 minutes


EAB’s Ann Lippens and Kaitlyn Maloney discuss the steps that colleges and universities are taking now to welcome students and employees back to campus this fall. While higher ed leaders are still working out the details of a safe return, including vaccination requirements, they are also thinking about how to use campus facilities in different ways to accommodate safety protocols as well as other considerations.

Ann and Kaitlyn say this isn’t just an exercise in space planning though. Schools are looking to apply lessons learned during the pandemic and expand the use of technology to improve a range of student services.



0:00:12.4 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we examine the planning efforts going on right now to prepare for students, faculty and staff to return in large numbers back to campus this fall. EAB’s Ann Lippens and Kaitlyn Maloney discuss the immediate challenges as well as more permanent changes that could transform the college experience. Thank you for listening and enjoy.


0:00:42.8 Ann Lippens: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I am Ann Lippens a managing director in our research division. Today, I am joined by my colleague, Kaitlyn Maloney, a senior director in research and expert on all things business and finance related. Hi, Kaitlyn.

0:00:58.4 Kaitlyn Maloney: Hi Ann, good to chat with you today.

0:01:01.8 AL: Kaitlyn you’re a frequent guest on Office Hours. For me, I know it’s time for me to join you when my day care starts requesting that we bring our children in swim suits for… In my case, swim diapers. [chuckle]

0:01:14.5 KM: That sounds great. I do think it was around this time last year that we came on the podcast to discuss re-populating campus safety, that was a great conversation. What a year it’s been. Hard to believe that was a year ago. Well, today campuses are still thinking about fall re-population fortunately under a more optimistic set of circumstances, while leaders are still working out the details of a safe return, including vaccination requirements, they’re also thinking about how the design and use of campus space should change on a more permanent basis, in other words, what should the post-pandemic campus of the future look like? So I’m excited to talk to you about that today.

0:01:54.7 AL: Absolutely, this is really a unique moment for higher ed, lots of leaders across campus, whether they’re facilities leaders or presidents and boards, they wanna know what they should be doing with their spaces, with their offices, classrooms, their libraries. Both because they do have to make decisions now, and as they prepare for future master planning purposes, that could be an ongoing conversation or something they’re looking toward in the next year or two. Kaitlyn, you’ve been leading research on this topic, I wanna pick your brain for the episode and break our discussion into three parts, what’s driving the conversation about space on campus right now, what spaces are changing today, and what do we think is going to change in the future? So let’s dig right in. We know more and more campuses are moving away from remote operations, what are the specific decisions that they’re needing to make right now?

0:02:49.7 KM: Yeah, that’s a big one that many campus leaders are grappling with is what is the future of remote work on their campus? We know that universally, students are eager to return to campus this fall, but not all staff share that sentiment since the past year has proven that they can do many of their jobs remotely, and some staff have really benefited from the flexibility, the time savings that came from working from home. So we have some staff and leaders looking to maintain at least a more hybrid work environment going forward, where they might be able to work remotely a few times a week and then come to campus on the other days to reap those benefits while others on campus are fearing that too much remote work can hurt culture, hurt productivity, hurt other mission goals. So campus leaders right now are trying to reconcile these options and opinions and create work environments that get the best of both worlds. It’s really tricky though. This of course, has space implications, but leaders do need to figure out the policy piece first.

0:03:49.8 AL: It is really tricky and EAB has approached this from a couple of different angles. We’ve been supporting our partners through a remote work policy audit, I wanna give a shout out to our colleague, Elizabeth Denny, who has been leading that work on EAB’s behalf, and we’ve also, as one of the many ways that we’re researching this topic in a recent survey with our chief HR officer partners, and we’ve seen some really interesting results when we ask them about their remote work policies, at least as dramatic as it gets when we’re talking about higher ed and flexible work arrangements, can you share what that survey revealed?

0:04:27.7 KM: Yeah, that’s right, this is certainly new ground for higher ed. I think one of the most telling findings is on the status of remote work policy changes. 50% of the chief human research officers that we surveyed reported that they already implemented or are currently implementing longer term changes to the remote work policies, and another 33% on top of that are planning to make long-term changes, while the percentage of roles that will be fully remote, so never coming to campus, we only had a small bomb, but I think it was 6% of all campus jobs before the pandemic, anticipating that, jumping up to 8%, the percentage of those hybrid roles, that combination approach, that nearly quadrupled from about 6% to 23%, and that’s a pretty big cultural and policy shift for most campuses.

0:05:20.4 AL: It really is, and it’s fascinating to hear hybrid is where we’re seeing the most growth. I was reading an article in the Chronicle about the University of Utah’s hybrid work plan, and one point that their CFO, Cathy Anderson made really stuck with me is that if a lot of their folks opt for these hybrid roles, it’s probably gonna cost the university. Can you talk a little bit about what impact these policy decisions are gonna have on administrative spaces?

0:05:48.0 KM: That’s a good question that we… That my team is actively exploring right now, but those short answer for right now is it depends, it depends on both the number of people opting for hybrid work arrangements and how intentional leaders are about redesigning or recouping under-utilized space to reflect these newer arrangements. But we are seeing some opportunities for cost savings, so naturally having fewer people in a campus office space at any given time means that you’ll need less space. We even spoke to one institution who had established a hybrid work-more model in their facilities division even before the pandemic, recognizing that this could be good for the staff recruitment and retention for productivity, for space savings. They were able to reduce their office for footage by 30%, by reducing the number of individual offices that they had and creating more collaboration space for staff to use when they’re on campus. We’ve heard several other schools in this pandemic and post-pandemic period that have been able to get rid of some of these space by consolidating office space in this way.

0:06:52.6 KM: There are two caveats here, I wanna make though, first, the opportunity to reduce space is generally going to be larger at schools who have hundreds of administrative staff that might be moving to more hybrid work models, so larger institutions. You’re not going to see a ton of space savings if you’re only looking at a handful of staff taking advantage or pursuing these new policies, and second, actualizing space savings will require some upfront investment costs, since you likely have to redesign some office spaces to create more unassigned and flexible space for people to share when they’re on campus. And that’s important to really optimize this new model of work, the goal should be to design the physical spaces that promote team building and belonging, since that’s why some of the staff will be coming to campus.

0:07:41.2 AL: That’s so interesting. There’s clearly a huge operational component here. I know that our teams like to reference the data point that came from an architecture from claiming that 60% remote staff is a tipping point, that that’s the threshold that you would need to reach to really re-space savings. That seems like a pretty high bar to clear. Do you see universities aspiring to that level or are they aiming a little bit lower.

0:08:09.5 KM: Definitely lower. I think universally, the sentiment is cash, if we had 60% of our staff all working remotely, what kind of campus environment would that be for the students if there was no one around? So definitely smaller. I think many campuses are delegating the decision-making to unit leaders, so it’s hard to even generalize across campuses. So you might have IT leader setting your own policy for the IT division, enrollment leaders setting policies for admission staff and so on. And this makes sense, ’cause unit leaders are best equipped to understand how being off-campus will affect performance and job outcomes. So we’re seeing some units on campus come forward with new room, or work plans, in some cases that involves offering to give up space that they won’t need as much. Some units like advancement were already pretty untethered to the physical campus by the nature of their jobs, they were out flying across the country meeting with donors.

0:09:06.6 KM: So they’ve been pretty quick to lean into this on some campuses, and other units like IT are realizing that they may need to embrace this more quickly than others, since they compete heavily for talent with other industries who have been quick to adopt to network. But we’re not seeing a lot of large-scale institution-wide plans to re-design spaces for this just yet. Although one exception comes to mind from a UK institution that we’ve spoken to, they were pretty keen on exploring remote work even before the pandemic, and now the pandemic is giving them the confidence that they could make this work on a more permanent basis. So they’re rolling out a new institution-wide policy but they’re doing it in phases, starting with back office administrative staff, then moving to professional staff in the academic colleges, and then finally looking at faculty. They haven’t fully determined the space implications just yet, but they are planning to propose changes to space design across campus to align with this new hybrid work philosophy. I’m really curious to watch how that plays out…

0:10:12.9 AL: I totally agree, and I love the sequencing. I think that’s probably right for a lot of partners, or just to underscore that really starting with admin staff, thinking about admin staffing units, and then moving to what is frankly gonna be the trickier question, which is what we do with our academic staff and spaces. And these again, are really huge decisions, and I want to honor the fact that this can feel really scary for our partner institutions. Presidents and cabinets are having to consider culture-shifting questions even as they navigate their institutions out of the pandemic. And that is one of the reasons why we do see partners sharing the responsibility across the org chart, like you mentioned, it does beg the question, what are some of those smaller, maybe even no regret space changes institutions can or maybe are already pursuing right now?

0:11:03.2 KM: Totally agree. I wanna just underscore that point about culture. It’s easy for us to default to speaking in cost or space-saving terms or policy terms, but this really is a big cultural moment for many institutions. So I’m glad that you emphasized that. But to your question, smaller no regret space changes they’re making now. Well, the first one that comes to mind is the campuses do have a huge opportunity to stop using swing spaces that’s temporary space that students, faculty or staff use while more permanent campus buildings are being renovated or restored. They’ll probably still need to use swing space for residents halls, for example, they need a place for students to sleep and live, but for some research and administrative space, staff and faculty can work remotely temporarily or work in more flexible shared campus spaces when their permanent spaces are being renovated.

0:11:58.1 KM: That’s a real living savings opportunity, particularly for large research universities. Another thing that comes to mind is rethinking leases. A lot of campuses have lease spaces, tend to be on the periphery of campus. And largely, that’s where administrative staff offices are based. At the very least, many campuses are thinking that they can be less space going forward, if they could condense some administrative space as more administrative staff are working remotely.

0:12:28.2 KM: So those are two low-hanging fruit for many campus leaders and they do carry real cost savings, so that is exciting. A bigger and potentially more challenging opportunities that comes to mind is permanently centralizing space ownership. Particularly in classroom space. Now, before the pandemic, many campuses saw different campus units managing their own spaces. So some space would be controlled centrally, but then you’d also have the College of Arts, let’s say, controlling a set of classrooms and offices, the College of Business owning its own set and so on. And this often resulted in sub-optimal space utilization, because let’s say if the college of business needed a lecture hall at a certain time when the College of Arts had one available, it wasn’t guaranteed that they could access it and use it. It led to many campus units building more spaces than that unit, that unit needed, even though there were existing spaces elsewhere on campus that could have been used. Now, campus leaders have long known that this is inefficient. So a silver lining of the pandemic was that many leaders had to take central control of all space to accommodate social distancing and the other extraordinary operating circumstances they faced, and now some central leaders aren’t giving it back.

0:13:50.3 KM: We know from our research that this will enable better space utilization, but it’ll be a big cultural hurdle to be able to clear as unit leaders are used to that level of control, but we’ll certainly improve space use and create less waste over time.

0:14:05.8 AL: Yeah, I think some of our partners have even called this The Black Swan event they needed to do what they always knew needed doing, which is having more central control of those spaces, so absolutely a silver lining. For sure. Now, I didn’t hear you mention the ever problematic parking, so maybe this isn’t quite the moment where we’re ready [chuckle] to shrink the parking footprint. [chuckle]

0:14:31.5 KM: Oh yeah, parking. What’s that quote from about the one thing that binds faculty together is complaints over too little parking on campus, right? Yeah, I don’t think that we’re ready for mass shrinkage here just yet, but at least some campuses are saying that they won’t need to build more parking if hybrid work models takes off, so I guess we could count that as a win.

0:14:52.9 AL: Absolutely. Well, I wanna talk about classrooms a little bit more, Berkeley’s president recently announced that this is the end of large lectures, and I think many leaders share that sentiment or at least that question, we have these huge, many hundred-person lecture halls, and with this new adoption of hybrid learning, there is no need to default back to those really large spaces, and that would again be a pretty dramatic shift for higher ed. Can you talk a little bit about that?

0:15:23.8 KM: Yeah, I read about that. It was quite the bold statement. I haven’t seen anyone walk back, plans to build the classrooms just yet, but I do think that that comment speaks to a pedagogical shift that the pandemic may have accelerated. When large lectures went online, many students actually had a better learning experience. They could see and hear better than if they were in the far back corner of a huge theater, and many liked having the ability to chat with their professors during the lecture. It made the experience feel more personalized and engaging, especially for more introverted students who wouldn’t have otherwise raised their hand in that large theater setting. Now, this is more anecdotal at this point, we haven’t fully researched it, but I get his point for that reason. That said, we’re still studying these experiments in remote pedagogy, and most academic leaders that I’ve spoken with feel that it’s too early to make big space changes based on them, just yet. Some schools have assembled task forces that will start this fall to at least consider what worked during this great remote learning experiment and what we should keep going forward. I certainly expect to see more technology enhanced classrooms going forward, but I think it’s too early to report on major changes to academic spaces. If anyone is listening though and planning big changes on their campus, please reach out, I’d love to hear about them.

0:16:52.3 AL: Second it, absolutely. We’ve talked a lot about remote administrative staff, but I know that this is a trend that we anticipate carrying forward in lots of different roles and in many, many shapes. So can you talk a little bit about the other functions we anticipate are going to carry forward with virtual operations?

0:17:11.0 KM: Sure. When we talk about other functions, we’re really thinking about student-facing roles, whether that’s in student services, whether that’s in faculty and academic support, so here really that the leading driver of these conversations is the student experience, how did moving those roles remote impact the student experiences? And what were the consequences? Is good or bad? So two that come to mind straight away as places that people are identifying as bright spots or things to continue in virtual operations are academic advising and mental health counseling. We have anecdotal data as well as data from our navigate platform that shows that the amount of virtual advising appointments made during the pandemic really jumped and the students found it more convenient to speak to an advisor from their home or residence hall at their own convenience.

0:18:05.6 KM: We also saw that students were more likely to keep appointments. There were far fewer no shows because this was more convenient, so this is raising a lot of questions on campuses, and I’m seeing pretty universal agreement that we should at least continue to offer these on a semi-permanent or tool basis, going back to the term hybrid, maybe create models where some advisors are available in-person. We still on residential campuses to still want to make sure that students have the opportunity to interact and build relationships with not just their peers and faculty, but also staff on a face-to-face basis, it’s a big part of the value proposition, but seeing these outcome goals that improved through the virtual modalities, how can we add virtual components on top of that to meet the needs of more students? This is particularly important for campuses that serve high proportions of adult and working students, as it is far more convenient for them to fit in appointments with their advisors or their counselors when they’re able to do it online from their workplace or in between classes and other obligations.

0:19:13.5 AL: I think one of the themes I’m hearing from this conversation, Kaitlyn, is that we’re not necessarily gonna lead with space change, is that in many ways, that’s going to be sort of a lagging indicator, and I think that’s right. So, close to final question for you, are we entering a contraction stage where universities are actually actively seeking to shrink their footprint?

0:19:39.0 KM: That’s an interesting question. It’s interesting because most surveyed presidents indicate a desire to grow their campus footprint or at least maintain a neutral footprint when yeah, everything we’re talking about or spoken about to this point would indicate the opposite. Most often we’re hearing an intent to grow research space or residential space to accommodate growth aspirations or replace outdated properties that aren’t attracted to today’s students or faculty. In that regard, it’s some continuation of what we’ve been seeing across the past decade, investments in the physical campus intended to help institutions compete for students, for faculty, for research grants, but that’s not gonna be the right strategy for everyone, and some campuses are realizing this. We are anticipating tightening shrinking enrollment market in some areas of the country in the next five years, and expecting more growth in online programs at the same time.

0:20:38.6 KM: So we are seeing some institutions in low population growth areas, proactively shrinking their physical plant to reflect those changing demographics. They’re strategically taking space offline to reduce costs, but also to help meet sustainability goals, since of course, these big campus plants consume a lot of energy and generate a lot of waste. I’d say whether campuses are looking to grow, shrink or stay the same, we’re certainly seeing an uptick in institutions looking to monetize their physical assets or make money off of the property they have, to reinvest back in mission priorities. Some of this involves looking to sell unneeded property at a profit, but public-private partnerships or P3s are also growing in popularity.

0:21:23.8 AL: Yeah, absolutely. Something we’ve heard from our partners is that even leaders in different roles feel like their priorities are really converging, and I think that’s been reflected in what you just shared. We are still aspiring to grow, but we have a closer eye or maybe a renewed focus toward achieving some of those higher aspirations that we have in higher ed around sustainability, serving all student populations, and making sure we are invested in those mission-focused activities, and I think that’s a really optimistic note for us to wrap up on. Kaitlyn, it was a delight as always to connect with you.

0:22:02.9 KM: Great to see you too Ann. Thanks for having me.

0:22:06.4 AL: Thanks so much for listening in.


0:22:14.0 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. We’re gonna take a short summer break, but we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a new episode of Office Hours, until then, thank you for your time.


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