August 16, 2019

Academic Workplace Innovation: How Universities Are Rethinking Spaces for Faculty and Staff

Forecasting Trends

By Elliot Felix

Colleges and universities are rethinking their workplaces to align their space with how people work today and to use their space to achieve their strategy. Beyond macro forces reshaping higher education in terms of access, accountability, and financial stability, there is a confluence of financial, environmental, technological, and cultural factors prompting this rethinking of the workplace.

Office of Human Resources Work+, University of Minnesota

According to Gallup, only 33% of university faculty and staff are engaged at work – “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Office space on a per-student basis has increased 153% since 1974, accordingly to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. This is not surprising since, from 1990 to 2012, professional administrative staff increased 38% at public universities and 42% at private, non-profit universities according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Based on all of these factors, institutions are rethinking their workplaces to achieve at least seven different goals.

  1. Achieving the Highest and Best Use of Space
    Colleges and universities recognize that space at the center of campus is often their most valuable – and that the value of physical space is to enable collaboration, foster interaction, and build relationships. So, many are moving groups with little or no contact with students and faculty (such as HR, advancement, purchasing, and facilities) to the periphery or off campus. This frees up space for classrooms and study spaces, student services, and research labs.
  2. Responding to New Work Patterns
    Most academic workplaces are primarily individual desks and offices for individual work. But people are working more collaboratively in teams, have flexible schedules, and are more mobile and doing work wherever they are – including at home – rather than just at their desk. One simple indicator of this increase in collaboration is that the average number of authors per paper grew 38% from 3.2 to 4.4 from 1996 to 2015 according to The Economist. So, more collaborative and flexible spaces are needed.
  3. Increasing Campus Space Utilization
    When colleges and universities invest in their campus, they want to ensure their assets are fully-utilized and meeting the needs of their students, faculty, and staff. Low utilization can be an indicator of a poor quality space, a surplus of space, or both. Office space is among the least utilized and unfortunately the least scrutinized. Most assigned offices are occupied only 30% to 40% of the 9-to-5 workday and often cannot be used by other people when went its occupant is out – teaching a class, working in a lab, in a meeting, traveling, or working from home.
  4. Increasing Financial Feasibility
    While people costs far outweigh space costs, space is costly to build, operate, and change, particularly when taking into account how much it is used; for instance, we developed a metric for “cost per person per hour utilized” and on that basis, a 140 square foot office with 30% utilization by one person is 9.4 times more expensive than a typical classroom with a 25 square feet for each person with 65% utilization. (Thanks to Sally Grans-Korsh and Jeff Ziebarth for their input on this calculation.)
  5. Achieving Environmental Sustainability
    Colleges and universities want their spaces to not only be well-utilized and financially feasible, but environmentally sustainable as well. Buildings in the U.S. account for 39% of our carbon footprint. Adopting new kinds of work environments with more shared space and more open space means less space is needed per person and this is more sustainable. While more efficient spaces that are used more intensively may have higher energy use on square foot basis, this is offset by being able to build a smaller facility.
  6. Promoting Student/Faculty Interaction
    Contact out of the classroom between students and faculty about readings and assignments is a critical driver of student engagement according to the National Survey of student engagement (NSSE). But only 40% of freshman have had such an experience. This is in part because faculty offices can be isolated, inaccessible, or intimidating for students – we’ve even seen institutions wonder why students don’t go into something called a “faculty office building”! Institutions are rethinking this so that faculty can get their work done while also being accessible to students.
  7. Enabling Concentration at Work
    In many cases the primary rationale for an office – having a private, enclosed space is to enable quiet, focused work – is undermined in practice because colleagues, staff, and students visit and interrupt this focused work. In fact, many universities have an “open door policy” to ensure faculty and staff are accessible to students. So in effect, many people have an office with a door so that they can keep it open. In hundreds of conversations we’ve had with faculty and staff, people will readily admit they do their focused work at home, in a coffee shop, or in the library to avoid these interruptions.

What is the Range of Workplace Innovation Taking Place?

One way of thinking about how the workplace has changed is to see that the same set of ideas is diffusing across sectors at different rates, depending on the applicability of the forces for change and how resistant an industry is to change. More than twenty years ago, consulting organizations moved from assigned offices to a variety of unassigned spaces to account for how little time people spent at the office and how much of their work happened in teams. These strategies have long since been adopted in sales organizations, financial services, and pharmaceuticals and are just now hitting law firms; for instance Minter Ellison moved to an unassigned, activity-based work environment in Australia. Higher education is clearly next.

Likewise, within higher education, there is a similar segmentation of different user populations that determine how quickly new workplace concepts are adopted. Generally, administrative staff are the first to adopt since they follow their corporate counterparts most closely, perhaps because there is a hierarchy in place and leadership can decide to move to a new kind of workplace. The next tier is adjunct, part-time, and clinical faculty who are on campus less, more mobile, and lower in the pecking order – and who may also openly acknowledge the need for a new model based on their work patterns, such as a clinical faculty member in a medical school who spends most of the time seeing patients and teaching courses. Then, finally, full-time tenure track faculty are the slowest to adopt or the most resistant to change, due to a lack of hierarchy, a more traditional orientation, and need for spaces that accommodate both focus and private conversations.

There is also a spectrum of workplace changes as well, that ranges from easy to hard to implement. The easier end of the spectrum is to provide smaller, enclosed offices complemented by shared meeting spaces to recognize how much more work happens in teams. For instance, Gensler’s 2016 global workplace survey showed that among corporate workers, people spend 47% to 54% of their time collaborating, but a typical university will allocate 64 square foot desks and 120 to 240 square foot offices, but only 15% to 20% of their space for meetings. Even though collaborative work often takes less space per person than individual work, these proportions are off if people are spending about 50% of their time in 20% of their space. The next tier of change is moving from assigning enclosed offices to an “open plan” with groups of desks within larger shared open spaces that are complemented by a variety of enclosed spaces for private calls, meetings, and events. The next and most difficult tier of workplace change is moving from assigning spaces to specific people to instead giving people the flexibility and choice to work where, how, and when they want – often called an “activity-based workplace” or perhaps more coarsely as “hotelling.”

What are the Best Examples of Academic Workplace Innovation?

To understand the changing landscape of academic workplaces, we can take these two factors – who the workplace is for and the degree to which it is changing – as axes on a grid. In the first grid below, we have illustrated the concepts with examples. The second grid lists examples in each category that brightspot has been involved with or we’ve been able to identify in our research. While not comprehensive – in fact, please let us know if you have examples to add to the list – this provides a sense of which strategies have been employed where and for whom.

Flexible Working at the University of Minnesota
brightspot developed Work+, a campus-wide activity-based workplace program for people to enjoy greater flexibility and more choices as to where to work. This arrangement increased productivity by 14% and reduced response times by 69% in 30% less space in initial pilots with the Office of Human Resources and University Facilities groups. (Design credit: University of Minnesota)

Open Plan Faculty Workplace at the University of Minnesota Rochester
A visionary president took an innovative, shared space approach to develop a new health sciences campus; for instance, in lieu of building an athletics facility, students have memberships to the local YMCA. Faculty were recruited with the expectation that they’d work in a new kind of environment: open office faculty suites with adjacent student meeting and collaboration spaces. (Design credit: HGA Architects)

Collaborative Workplace at the University of Michigan Weiser Hall
brightspot reimagined an existing, unloved, double-loaded cinder block corridor building as a flexible, collaborative workplace with a variety of assigned and shared settings for work. The results yielded 75%+ satisfaction with spaces, technology, and furniture as well as productivity gains of 4.26 hours per week, on average. (Design Credit: Diamond Schmitt Architects)

Unassigned Staff Workplace at the MIT Sloan School of Management
brightspot worked with MIT’s Sloan School of Management to create an activity-based workplace that brought together previously distributed Executive Education staff. This change enabled them to have the flexibility to choose where and how to work within less space overall, while enabling the co-location of several groups. (Design Credit: Stantec)

Open Faculty Workplace at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
To test a new workplace concept, the College renovated an existing floor to create an ecosystem of individual and collaborative spaces for more transient clinical faculty, including dedicated faculty 6′ x 8′ workstations, shared meeting rooms, and dedicated offices for some faculty. (Design Credit: SmithGroupJJR)

Open Faculty Workplace at the Johns Hopkins University & Maryland Institute College of Art
Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Institute College of Art created a shared workplace for full-time and part-time faculty shared across the institutions including open workstations for some faculty, enclosed offices for other faculty, and informal communal work areas. (Design Credit: Ziger/Snead Architects)

Open Faculty Workplace at Central New Mexico Community College
CNWCC renovated Ken Chappy Hall to convert a portion of the building from classrooms to faculty workspaces and to test a new concept in the process. The design includes open workstations for faculty along with adjacent shared focus rooms and a variety of meeting and informal spaces. (Design Credit: Dekker/Perich/Sabatini)

Open Faculty Workplace at Morgan State University
Morgan State created a new Behavioral and Social Sciences Center that includes an open workplace for part-time faculty and graduate instructors that is adjacent to student collaboration space as well as enclosed offices for full-time faculty. The adjacency of faculty workspace to student collaboration space intentionally promotes interaction among and between the groups. (Design Credit: HOK)

Unassigned Faculty and Staff Workplace at Edinburgh University
In 2006 Edinburgh’s Telford College relocated to a new campus in the city’s Waterfront development bringing together three campuses, 20,000 students, and 600 staff under one roof, all sharing resources and learning experiences. Among the most radical of models, the space is primarily shared (i.e., unassigned) open workspace: 85% of staff/faculty share space, with an overall average of one desk for every two people. (Design Credit: HOK)

Unassigned Faculty and Staff Workplace at the Technical University Delft
Following a devastating fire, the Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft renovated their facilities and created an open shared workplace for faculty to work together and experiment with new workplace models within their “BK City” complex. Faculty and staff use a variety of assigned and unassigned spaces that are open and enclosed. (Design Credit: Kossmann de Jong)

How Can Colleges and Universities Rethink Their Workplace?

The most common mistake that institutions make when trying to change their workplace is assuming that they are trying to solve a space problem.

Even if the impetus for a project is a space problem – you’re out of space and have no place to put the new faculty or staff member you just hired! – you won’t solve it by thinking about it as a space problem. It’s more complex and nuanced than that.

What you need first is a workplace strategy – a coherent statement that describes how your space will be used to help you achieve your larger strategic goals. For instance, if student success is a goal, and we know student/faculty interaction is a major contributor to it, then your workplace strategy might be to maximize student/faculty interaction while enabling faculty to focus.

Having a workplace strategy means you can think about space and people simultaneously, and this is the best way to orchestrate the process – see the process map below.

  1. Vision and Direction
    Start by defining goals (e.g., maximize student/faculty interaction) and set the vision and direction. Use this direction to design a change program that will identify the shifts people will have to make compared to today and the ways you can support this transition through communications, training, and other activities.
  2. Future Needs
    Then define the future workstyles by role and future needs in terms of space, technology, furniture, and support services.
  3. Participatory Planning
    Once these are articulated, you can co-create the solutions to meet the needs and build buy-in and then look for ways to prototype the future by building mock-ups to look at proportions, sightlines, and furniture options. Pilots with actual work settings people can work in for a day, week, month, etc. are also a great change management tool.
  4. Reflect and Refine
    Then, once built, you should measure the performance of the workplace against your initial needs assessment and tweak spaces, operations, and policies based on the findings.
Workplace Strategy Process Map

Tips for Getting Started

Once you understand the process, there are some suggestions to help increase your chance of success. First, find groups that are willing to try new things as these could become a pilot project to learn and get others on board – business schools, academic health centers, or entirely new programs with visionary leaders are often the best opportunities. These are often the groups that are the most mobile (i.e., they spend the most time away from their desks because they are seeing patients, meeting with partners, etc.) and the most tied to industry and thus aware and receptive to trends in how the corporate workplace is changing. Second, given the rise in part-time faculty as well as the trend to move administrative units off campus, another opportunity is for colleges and universities to create a shared work environment like a coworking space for its more mobile workforce; for instance, coworking juggernaut WeWork just opened their first academic coworking space at the University of Maryland University College. Third, another way forward is for universities to update their space standards to result in savings by reducing the sizes of offices and workstations while still increasing the amount of space devoted to collaboration.

As new workplace strategies are adopted, organizational change management is crucial to enable people to be informed, excited, and prepared. Faculty and staff need to know what’s happening and why.

Colleges and universities need an intentional process for setting norms and building the skills people will need rather than moving them to a new space and hoping they will miraculously work differently without any training or discussion about how to do so.

As they implement changes, institutions need to keep in mind that changing the workplace isn’t simply a “space problem.” It is much more complex, involving institutional goals and strategy, culture, work process, organizational design, and support services – to name few. So, a holistic approach is a must.

What’s the Right Path Forward for You?

In our research, we’ve identified three principal paths that institutions can take to implement innovative academic workplaces, each with pros and cons.

  • First, you can identify a BOLD LEADER who sets a direction and is willing to spend considerable political capital in order to bring others along. The University of California San Francisco’s Mission Hall is a good example of this; after setting the direction and then receiving over 60 pages of critical comments from faculty, the design was adjusted to assign spaces – mostly desks in an open work environment but with some enclosed offices – and the facility has since opened.
  • Second, you can identify a NEW GROUP whose expectations can be set on a new workplace model so that they self-select for this kind of environment. This is the case for the University of Minnesota Rochester’s faculty who were recruited knowing that the campus, at least to start with, would adopt a shared space model.
  • Third, you can develop a PILOT PROJECT with people interested in testing new models but have a history of working in (and having some attachment to or affinity for) a traditional model. This requires a robust change management process as well as rigorous assessment to measure performance and make the case for more projects like it. This is the approach brightspot used with the University of Minnesota for their Work+ program.

The time has come for colleges and universities to adapt and apply new ideas about the workplace. New work patterns, financial pressures, growth on the horizon, and the crises of student engagement and degree completion all demand new approaches. As AI and automation increase, many transactional staff roles will disappear and more consultative roles will be needed. This will mean that space for heads-down process work will decrease while space for consultation and meetings will increase. As research becomes more collaborative, spaces to connect with partners, tools, and information both in-person and online will only increase. And if we are to solve for student success, more approachable and inclusive spaces for students and faculty to meet will be a must.

The benefit of being in the sector at the tail end of the changes in the workplace is that there is so much to learn from by looking at other sectors. The challenge will be finding the right groups – with the right leadership – to start with and coupling that with the right strategy to assess, adapt, communicate, and scale up.


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