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How to Create the Hybrid College Experience Both Students and Staff Prefer

Episode 95

March 15, 2022 30 minutes


EAB’s Brooke Thayer and Michael Fischer examine best practices emerging from the pandemic in terms of space utilization and integration of technologies that give students and campus employees the flexibility they want. Brooke and Michael touch on innovations in classroom design, clever integration of new wellness spaces on campus, and the cultural change that has to happen to make campus office spaces function better.

They also identify impediments, including cost as well as labor and materials shortages, that institutional leaders will need to work around in order to achieve the multi-modal campus they need to attract students and retain staff.



0:00:11.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today explore what it means to move beyond the emergency adaptations you were forced to make in 2020 and begin to establish a true multi-modal campus. We’ll take a look at some of the changes taking place on campuses across America to establish a better blend of on-site experiences with expanded use of technologies that give both students and campus employees the flexibility they want, give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:48.4 Michael Fischer: Welcome to EAB’s Office Hours. My name is Michael Fischer, I’m the director in our research advisory services here at EAB, and I’m privileged to be joined today by my colleague, Brooke Thayer, Brooke, thanks for being here.

0:01:02.2 Brooke Thayer: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Michael. And hi everyone, my name is Brooke Thayer, I’m an Associate Director in EAB’s research division. So I get the pleasure of spending a lot of time talking with campus leaders about their big challenges, especially those related to finances, operations and strategy, and so looking forward to the conversation and getting to share out what I’ve been hearing from folks around a range of topics today. So thanks again, Michael, for having me.

0:01:29.7 MF: Absolutely Brooke, and we are certainly talking about a very big issue and challenge on campus, which is the future of the multi-modal campus and thinking about the lessons that have come out of the pandemic and what that might mean for the design of both our physical and virtual spaces and activities on campus, we at EAB have kind of… Consolidate all that idea around this category of the multi-modal campus, but certainly that could be a little bit of a buzz word, so Brooke, I’d love to hear from you. To start us off, what exactly do we mean by multi-modal campus?

0:02:06.1 BT: Yeah, it’s such a good question. And there’s some definitional work that needs to be done here. I think back to early in the pandemic, there was a lot of buzz out there around the hybrid campus, we heard that term getting used a lot, but a lot of stakeholders associated hybrid with the pandemic experience specifically, or they associate it with things like academic instruction and modalities and not to mention it sounded a lot like high flex, which I know has been perhaps a bit of a polarizing word on some campuses, so we at EAB have been deliberately using the multi-modal campus language instead, really to describe the long-term shift to a model where we’re more proactively and intentionally blending both in-person and digital or online experiences, especially in ways that advance our strategic goals, so not just as a reactionary measure in response to the pandemic, and I think it’s also worth noting that our use of this multi-modal term really is also about using the blending of in-person and virtual to enhance the overall experience that our students, our staff, our faculty have when they’re on campus.

0:03:19.4 MF: Yeah, I think it’s important to take into account that while there’s been a lot of flashy headlines around a couple of institutions selling their entire campus and moving to an entirely online model or doing significant leasebacks, what we’re more broadly seeing in higher education is an attempt to better utilize space that are combined virtual and physical experiences, and think about the ways that the pandemic has reinforced both the physical desire to be on campus and the experiences that can be augmented and supported by digital activities.

0:03:57.1 BT: Yeah, no, I think that’s such a good point here, Michael, and one of the things I wanna elevate from our research is I think in many of our earlier conversations and early on in the pandemic, certainly there was that buzz around should we downsize, should we right-size our campus, are there opportunities, we should actually shrink our footprint, but as you’ve mentioned we haven’t seen as many institutions making these types of really big divestments in their physical campuses, and a big reason for that is somewhat counterintuitively, actually, our physical space is arguably more important than ever before in this multi-modal world, and there’s a couple of different reasons for that, that I’ll start to unpack, and I’m sure you can add more later, more on to this conversation, but one of the big ones that we hear come up a lot is the fact that in a more multi-modal world, people have options, they have the option perhaps to be in-person, they have the option to be virtual, and so when they are coming in-person, they have higher expectations for that experience for the environment that they’re choosing to be in.

0:05:00.4 BT: And certainly, that’s true among our students in particular, when you think about the other types of space that they’re encountering in their daily lives out of sector examples, they’re increasingly comparing us to those experiences, but I’d be curious, Michael, what else would you add there, what are the other reasons behind this?

0:05:18.5 MF: No, I think what you described there is a psychological concept called experience liquidity, where people blend their perceptions, their experiences from other parts of their lives into the parts of the lives that we’re talking about in higher education, it’s so easy to order a coffee through the Starbucks app, it’s so easy to get the rideshare vehicle through Uber or Lyft, and then if a student or a parent or a staff member comes to campus and finds that there are barriers to doing that kind of activity, they wonder, well, why can’t we do it here? Why can’t we have that on campus? I think the data that surprised me most though is just how much emphasis students have placed on being back on campus during the pandemic data from EAB’s enrollment services division found that for prospective students deciding which institution they were going to ultimately accept an offer from amongst the ones that they applied to, three of the top five reasons for choosing one over the other were physically-based, location, academic facilities, campus environment and experience.

0:06:24.2 MF: These are things that if you had said at the beginning of the pandemic, when we were moving into this very remote and virtual instruction and support environment, people were talking about, well, is there any real point to having physical space anymore? But students have really spoken in some sense with their wallets in deciding where they want to attend.

0:06:42.7 BT: Yeah, I love those data points, and I’ll add in here that in some ways, and it’s actually technology that is enabling and perpetuating that trend, when you think about some of the new technologies like super sophisticated virtual reality tours, these put our campus spaces and our facilities quite literally under the microscope, since it’s giving students this 360-degree view, it really elevates all of the spaces we have across campus, and it allows them to literally zoom in on some of the smallest details of our facilities, not to mention they can watch these over and over and so I would argue it means they might notice some things that they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed about our campus if they had just been in-person going on a standard 90-minute walking tour. And as…

0:07:32.0 MF: Well, and on those virtual tours, what I hear is the first place that any student goes is the dining facility, they wanna see where they’re gonna be meeting up with their friends, where they’re gonna be getting a bite to eat, where they think their social life is gonna start while on campus, and that’s a lot easier to access at any given time through a virtual experience than if you were physically taking a tour of campus, but I think it’s also important to recognize that we’re not just talking about students here, staff and faculty have had the last two years and realized that they work differently, they can leverage their hybrid working arrangements or remote capacities for being productive, but there are some things that they long for that they miss for not being on campus, community, easier collaboration, easier abilities to socialize, build mentoring relationships and connect and build that sense of community across various different departments and different divisions of the campus, that’s something that even with the best investments of technology, we haven’t mastered yet in the virtual space, and we’re gonna continue to depend on physical space and physical presence to drive a lot of those long-term relationships on campus.

0:08:46.2 BT: Yeah, I love the addition of the staff and the faculty component here too, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks about how do we build that community, especially when we’ve got folks who might be in-person, and who might also be virtual, and so one of the spaces that I’ve been watching closely, I know you have been too Michael, is actually looking at how are institutions adapting their office space on campus in order to support a more multi-modal operation of work. And so one of the things that I’ve been really excited about there is this idea of a neighborhood design, so we’re bringing together different types of space, maybe individual work spaces, meeting spaces, collaboration space, also social space as well, bringing those together into a collective unit where folks can come in and still feel like they have a sense of community, even when they’re only there for a couple of days, or part of their team isn’t in the office. What else would you add there, Michael?

0:09:44.5 MF: Yeah. The idea of… I was gonna say there that the idea of people moving to a space that’s conducive to their activity is something that’s a little novel, I think, for many of us, especially in higher education, where we’re used to sort of sitting at our desk or in our cubicle regardless of the activity we’re doing, but there’s no reason that we have to be tethered to one location at any given time and so moving between spaces that have the right technology, the right infrastructure. And then thinking about, well, what’s the kind of stuff that I wanna prioritize when I’m not on campus? Probably things like answering emails, taking Zoom and phone calls, doing internal preparation or strategy work for the week versus the things I wanna do while I’m on campus, which is connect with people, go out for coffee, work with my team to brainstorm some solution or prepare a report or presentation that requires multiple people to contribute and build on top of each other’s work. Bifurcating those experiences and then making sure that each environment is best suited for those is something that’s an evolving challenge, but one we’re already seeing some really interesting successes at places like the University of Leicester, the University of California, San Diego, Irvine, Northeastern University, and others across the world.

0:11:04.2 BT: Yeah, well, and you hit on one of the points here, one of the big challenges I often hear from campus leaders is that their employees that are maybe a little bit hesitant sometimes about that more flexible model, and in particular, this idea of not having their own dedicated space, their own desk on campus that they can always come into and use. And we’ve seen more institutions using this flexible model, using shared workstations, a hoteling space, touchdown space. Michael, what are you hearing from campuses that have had success actually moving towards that model, or how are they helping their employees maybe get over that mental hurdle of not having their own space or a dedicated space on campus, and anything they’re doing to streamline the coordination that comes with that too?

0:11:51.0 MF: Actually, I think there are maybe three core principles that apply to all stakeholders and for all types of spaces on campus, but we can use offices as a vignette into it there. First is you have to understand what people want, whether that’s through surveying, town hall, small groups, getting data and information from managers, from faculty, from academic advisors, how do people actually currently use their space, what do they want out of the space, what do they not have in the space that they currently have, and what are their current levels of satisfaction, productivity, engagement, success, so that then you can compare against alternate spaces and actually see improvement? That leads to that second core principle, which is evangelize with early leaders, it’s gonna be a lot easier to convince one particular unit with a very impassioned manager and a lot of entrepreneurial and innovative employees to do an experimental pilot of a different type of space or using some technology, and then use their success to convince others on campus, maybe other administrative and professional services units to do it, and then they will convince academic staff and they will convince faculty to continue to take and build on top of the existing work that’s done.

0:13:07.6 MF: Then finally is the cultural change takes a long time to get done, it requires multiple pinpoints, so training people, providing examples of the space near the elevators or front doors of buildings, so people can see what the space might looks like. Signaling six months, a year in advance, where the institution plans to go with this type of space or this type of environment, so people feel comfortable as they shift into the environment that’s not being sprung on top of them, they have time to voice their concerns, they have time to make modifications based on the feedback they’re providing, I think that’s really beneficial for institutions as they consider all these types of spaces moving forward.

0:13:48.5 BT: Yeah. I…

0:13:52.2 MF: I think, Brooke, that we’ve made a pretty good case for why multi-modal is a good future for universities and colleges to want to pursue, but what’s preventing us from getting from A to B, what’s preventing multi-modal from just becoming the norm on our campuses and better designing spaces to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual?

0:14:15.1 BT: Yeah, it’s a great question. And the thing I think a lot of folks bring up first is, of course, finances, that’s always a factor here, having the resources required to actually make this transition, to adapt our space, to incorporate more technology, some of those that are pretty big-ticket items, but I think that it’s not just finances here, this isn’t purely a resource problem. There’s a couple of other factors at play, and one of the big ones right now is certainly just uncertainty about the future still. A lot of institutions are still emerging from the pandemic, and while it’s always been hard to predict exactly what we’re going to need in terms of space down the road, it’s arguably even harder right now, especially as institutions are still formulating their strategy around things like, what’s the future of teaching and learning going to be going forward? Is it going to be more multi-modal and how does that translate into how much space we actually need?

0:15:09.0 BT: The other piece I would add to this is also the cultural and psychological barriers that come with changing our space on campus. I think historically higher ed has often thought about our campus space in a pretty additive way, meaning we’ve always been wanting to add more space to our portfolio but rarely ever subtracting. We haven’t taken a lot of space offline, or demolished outdated facilities. Quite simply, we don’t like giving up space even if it isn’t perhaps as valuable or as strategically aligned as we would like it to be, and so with that in mind, I think this conversation around multi-modality, and we’re running into some of those psychological barriers as we think about what changes do we need to make and it’s hard for us to contemplate the possibility that our campus might look different in the future.

0:16:00.7 MF: One chief business officer told me that on their campus, they were describing it as a financial and moral imperative, they have very ambitious green goals, to be carbon net zero in a relatively short period, and they even have a commitment to try to be as sustainable as possible, and they have a commitment to try to reduce student debt, the amount of tuition that they have to charge. And when they build new or inefficiently use some of their existing spaces on campus, that’s a burden both on their students and on the environment, and that mindset shift has taken a long time. There used to be a joke in the industry that no president wanted to be the one that was remembered for shrinking campus, but now we can frame this conversation, not as we made the footprint smaller, but we made the footprint better. We’re better serving our students, our faculty, our staff. We’re better committing to our community, to the environment, to the core mission of the institution by leveraging our existing resources and moving them in a direction that meets the challenges of the future.

0:17:04.1 BT: Yeah, I love that sentiment. I similarly had a conversation with a campus leader and they described it as this isn’t a matter of not having enough space. I’ve actually talked to a lot of folks, and they’ve said, “I’ve got too much space, but the problem is I don’t have the right space. I have space that I no longer need as much of. My portfolio needs have changed.” So for example, maybe I don’t need as much office space, maybe I don’t need as much parking space on campus. I don’t have folks commuting every single day but what I’m missing, what I don’t have, at least at the center of my campus is often more student-centric spaces, and that’s a big priority for a lot of institutions as we think about many of our strategic goals and serving students more holistically, and so one of the trends I’ve been seeing among institutions is what I like to call kind of the great reshuffling of the space portfolio, thinking about where are our different spaces located and are there opportunities to potentially take some of those spaces, maybe office spaces serving back-office functions and relocate them somewhere else, so we can reclaim our central campus or to be a little bit more student first and to make sure we’re maximizing the value of that high value space right at the heart of campus.

0:18:15.2 MF: On the one hand, we have people on campus who are asking of us that the space be more sustainable, that it better incorporate wellness considerations, more natural light, more greenery, more comfort for those who pass through it. That it’s more inclusive and accessible and takes into account historic wrongs and the blindness towards certain disabilities and certain types of access historically. But on the other side of the equation, I certainly hear from a lot of chief business officers and senior facilities officers that it’s harder than ever to build new or re-design. Everyone now knows that inflation is bad, but inflation was bad within the construction environment even before the last couple of years, labor shortages and the difficulties of actually getting work done on campus have only driven costs up, extended timelines and made it more difficult to deliver the types of spaces, advanced spaces that institutional stakeholders want out of design and construction groups, and I think that that means that every single space that we design, build or renovate moving forward, we wanna get it right because we’re gonna be able to execute on fewer and fewer of those projects as ambitiously and as successfully as possible, given those constraints and the financial ramifications that come from them.

0:19:34.0 BT: Yeah, it’s such a good point. And certainly thinking… I like to think of it as our dollars aren’t going to stretch quite as far today as they once did, and so that’s putting the pressure on campus leaders to think strategically and to make smarter investments perhaps than in the past, and to really prioritize where to put their resources, and what spaces to invest in going forward. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, where are you seeing institutions maybe experimenting or innovating the most when it comes to adapting their spaces, making upgrades and making new investments?

0:20:07.0 MF: Well, one area that I think we’ve seen a lot of recent work on is wellness spaces, spaces designed intentionally with the holistic health of not only students, but faculty and staff and the community at stake. Now, sometimes that’s as simple as just looking at the plethora of physical and mental health services on campus and thinking about what that portfolio looks like; is it rightly distributed? Should it be centralized in a single location to create easier accessibility, or should it remain spread in various pockets to ensure that there is accessibility for various constituents on campus? When we do bring a lot of those spaces together, we have the opportunity to think about the design features that within them; how can we create space that, again, adds more natural lights, that has soft music or water features within it that help people, as they enter into a counseling appointment or a physical, get in the mood and the mindset that makes them comfortable for maybe having some difficult health conversations?

0:21:09.8 MF: And some institutions even go so far as to try to locate those spaces within academic buildings, within residential halls, within some of the core facilities on campus, both as a value-add for students and faculty trying to attend those, but also to signal their importance to the long-term mission of the institution of supporting the student not only academically but in all aspects of their life.

0:21:37.0 BT: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up the health and wellness spaces, because I am seeing a similar trend. Lots of big investments going into these spaces, and I like this idea of bringing together different services in a shared location. To your point, it makes accessibility better, it also has a lot of signal value, it really elevates the fact that this is a big priority for institutions, all in terms of their commitment to student mental health and well-being.

0:22:07.6 MF: Another place that a lot of institutions have had conversations, if maybe not acted on them just yet, has been around eSports and other types of blending of what we traditionally call athletic-type activities with the virtual world. There’s a lot more interest in creating virtual collaboration spaces on things like Reddit or Discord, and then blending those together with the kind of video game or digital activities that students love to participate in now. Video games are no longer a niche activity of a particular sub-section of the population, but instead have widespread appeal across demographics and age ranges. And some institutions have tried to double down on that, creating eSports arenas or largely high-teched-out spaces, but I actually think that eSports are more gonna go the direction of maker spaces. Which a few institutions will create some very flashy, very forward-thinking, that will drive some of their enrollment and get them press, but eventually, we’ll get to the stage where they’ll just be an expectation for a relatively well-resourced and dedicated space on campus that can be used by a variety of stakeholders; maybe it’s connected to your library, maybe it’s connected to your wellness center or your student union, but it’ll just become the norm.

0:23:20.9 MF: Not something that requires a lot of attention, not something that requires a lot of trumpeting, but instead something that is just considered to be a relative normal expectation for any student or parent that’s looking at campus. Brooke, any other spaces that you think our audience might be interested in hearing some of the design trends and trajectories we’re tracking?

0:23:44.3 BT: Yeah, the one other one I’ll throw in here and I mentioned briefly earlier, is classrooms. There’s a lot of buzz around classrooms going on right now, probably not too surprisingly coming out of the pandemic, and so I wanna double-click on that briefly and share a couple of trends I’ve been seeing in that space. One of the big themes that came up early in the pandemic was this idea that maybe this virtual experience was going to be the end of lectures, that it was going to be the death of the lecture hall. I remember UC Berkeley’s chancellor made some news for comments about the potential end of the big lecture, lots of news outlets doing the same. But, so far at least, those predictions haven’t really seemed to pan out. In a lot of my conversations with provost and academic affairs leaders, many have said a lot of their faculty are still committed to the lecture, they’re always going to be, and they’re gonna lecture no matter what we say or what we do. But there’s also still a place for the lecture in our repertoire going forward, especially thinking about the need to offer some more high enrollment courses. It doesn’t mean though that the lecture hall is just going to escape the pandemic completely unscathed.

0:25:00.0 BT: I think even a lot of our faculty are seeing the benefits of relatively small changes to how they lecture. So how can they bring more technology into that? Could they use a quick poll like they did on Zoom during the pandemic? Could they use a flipped classroom approach? Are they recording their lecture asynchronously ahead of time and then using that in-person class time for discussion or for group work? And so, given all of that, I suspect lecture halls are still gonna be part of our portfolio, but I’m curious, Michael, whether you have thoughts on how they might need to evolve in order to support some of those changing pedagogical techniques and approaches?

0:25:35.7 MF: Since we don’t know what the future of teaching and learning will fully pan out to be, to some extent it’s about designing those lecture spaces to have flexibility in mind. We’ve definitely seen some examples of institutions, design lecture halls that can be divided into smaller soundproof classrooms, when you don’t need 500 seats but instead only need 125 across four different sections. But even relatively minor and straight forward design additions, like setting aside a green room, a prep room for faculty before they go into the lecture space because it’s gonna be more tech-enabled and there may be a class that’s already in there, and so the faculty member needs time to load up their slides, check their sound, make sure that they’re comfortable with the technology having rushed across campus.

0:26:21.9 MF: That’s a relatively minor thing that we can create that has a significant impact on both preparing faculty and making the types of lectures and experiences that student have seamless, professional and appealing for them to attend. I also know that some institutions have actually tried to create dedicated space to train faculty on some of these new technologies or prepare them for these new pedagogies. Experimental labs where faculty can get hands-on experience and get more comfortable with the types of tools and equipment that we’re asking them to utilize within the classroom, as opposed to, as we unfortunately had to during the pandemic, kind of throw them into the midst of it and say, “Do the best you can to get to the stage that you’re able to do so.”

0:27:09.8 BT: Yeah, I love this example and idea of creating the experimental space for faculty to get hands-on. The other thing I’m seeing institutions do more here is involving faculty earlier in the discussions around what types of space do we need, how should we be thinking about our classrooms, recognizing pedagogy is evolving constantly. And so one of the examples I love here is Indiana University, which has actually launched a big initiative around innovative classroom redesign. And they have a number of faculty fellows who come in, they spend a year working closely with their learning spaces teams, and as part of that are actively brainstorming and proposing new designs, new approaches for what classrooms could look like. And in particular, they take those and they actually use that information, sharing it with the university architect, sharing it with academic deans, so that the faculty voice is really elevated in this discussion. We could build, and spend a lot of time thinking about how to build, what we think is the optimal classroom space, but ultimately faculty are the end users, and so, pull them forward into this process, let them have a voice here.

0:28:22.1 MF: And I think that that communication element is crucial. Multimodal is here to stay, but how multimodal plays out is still something of an open question. It requires conversations on each campus to understand what are students, faculty and staff ready for? Where do we feel like we have strengths, where do those connect with the mission and our strategic goals? And where are we willing to make those investments? Having those open lines of communication and thinking about what aspects do we wanna focus on, wellness, sustainability, community, what types of spaces are gonna allow us to appeal to the next generation of students or retain our staff and make them feel productive and engaged amidst the great resignation. There’s a lot of conversation that’s taking place here, and unfortunately, Brooke, I don’t even think today we had time to get into some of the most innovative and interesting spaces that we’ve seen in dining and residential halls and libraries and academic spaces. So maybe we’ll have to pull up together again soon and talk through some of these more detailed spaces in a podcast to come.

0:29:28.7 BT: Absolutely, Michael, I’d love to come back and do a deep dive and talk more about some of the interesting examples we’ve seen out there. It’s certainly a constantly evolving landscape, as we all experiment and figure out what this new normal looks like in our multimodal context, but I’m excited to keep watching institutions and learning how they are adapting their physical campuses in response.

0:29:52.7 MF: Well, thank you, Brooke, for being here today, and we’ll look forward to a follow-up to this conversation in the near future.

0:29:57.9 BT: Thanks, Michael.


0:30:07.3 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts explore the changing role of the chief diversity officer. Until then, thank you for your time.

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