Estates management: Safe and sound?

From ensuring social distancing across campus to plugging the financial gap caused by the loss of international students, what are the main issues facing estates directors as they prepare for this post-lockdown academic year? Steve Wright looks ahead

The return to campus for the 2020–21 academic year is sure to be an unprecedented time for all involved with university life, as students and staff all adapt to a very different post-lockdown learning world.

The inevitable modifications to daily life, to lectures, leisure, and to movement around the campus generally, will be the most immediately noticeable changes to most staff and students. University estates directors and SLTs will have to make many tricky decisions as they seek to make their campuses the most workable spaces that they can be for their staff and student body, while adhering to the rules around hygiene and social distancing.

A closely linked problem facing estates directors in particular will be how to ensure that their universities continue to operate efficiently – in particular offsetting as far as possible the financial losses incurred by the withdrawal of many international students (and likely many domestic students, too) from the 2020–21 academic year, due to fears and/or travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Compliance and communication

Plenty to think about, in short. Where to start? Perhaps with that most basic essential: ensuring compliance, and the health of everyone on campus.

Jane White is executive director at the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). “A priority is obviously ensuring appropriate levels of social distancing. Use clear communications to manage students’ expectations about what they can expect and what is required of them in turn. Examine every space and how it is used, to ensure that it can allow for social distancing and can provide new ways of working. Clear and consistent signage is key here.”

Be clear, says Jane, about when you want staff and students to stay off campus – and give them the technology to work from home wherever possible. “Some universities have also developed a ‘click and collect’ service to mitigate the risk of overcrowding during, for example, staff and students’ collection of essential belongings, or recording of practical teaching tasks only possible on campus. Online campus activity planners, accessible to all, can broadcast Covid-secure dates for each building, so people can check before coming onto campus.”

Compliance will extend well beyond visible spaces such as lecture rooms and corridors. Neal Grant is head of business development at Derwent Facilities Management. “Clearly Covid-19 is going to impact university estates in nearly every aspect possible, with life on campuses across the country changing radically. One key concern will be compliance: with buildings having lain dormant for such a long time, the risk of legionella increases.

If services have halted, there may be significant work to bring such buildings back online safely. This may require increased sampling of water systems, increased cleaning of water tanks and increased flushing of all outlets.

“In addition, estates teams may need to reconfigure escape routes and assembly points to ensure adequate social distancing. They may need to adjust ventilation systems to minimise air circulation between lecture theatres, offices and classrooms, all while maintaining compliant temperatures and working conditions. This will be a particular challenge during summer months when temperatures are likely to soar.”

Ongoing maintenance will also be affected. “Once buildings are re-opened, there will be dramatic changes to how teams operate and how students and staff use spaces,” Neal continues. “Jobs that may previously have needed two people may need to be re-arranged, or additional lifting equipment brought in. Buildings will need to be adapted for social distancing rules being breached – both when people move within those buildings, and when they are stationary in lectures and social spaces. Frequently used touchpoints will need increased cleaning – or removing altogether, to prevent the risk of transmission. Ventilation systems are another key aspect of ongoing management which will need assessing and adjusting in line with HSE guidance to minimise contact between direct groups.”

Shortfalls and SLAs

The full impact of the epidemic and post-lockdown landscape on university income is as yet unknown, with international student numbers likely to drop for the 2020–21 intake, as well as likely increased deferrals of domestic students, if learning conditions are impacted. How can estates directors mitigate for this shortfall?

Keeping a tight rein on outgoings, and using assets as smartly as possible, will be key. Jane White urges universities to ensure that they are getting value for money from suppliers. “Review the service level agreement (SLA) within each contract against your anticipated future demand, and adjust accordingly. The increased requirement for cleaning has led to renegotiation of some quotes. Construction consultancies and services should be lowering their costs during and post-recession.”

“Estates teams may be facing decreased budgets in the years to come,” Neal Grant adds. “They will need to find ways to squeeze more life out of their assets, increase productivity for their teams on reduced numbers, and draw back services where they can. This may mean restructuring of teams, outsourcing of services to share risk on budgets, and delaying or changing plans for capital replacements projects. The services delivered could look very different over the coming period, with cost considerations driving this shift.”

The way back

Focus on future-proofing, says Planon

For many real estate and facilities teams the focus has shifted from successfully moving out of the workplace/campus to effectively managing the way back in.

Some questions many universities are asking, include:
1. How can social distancing measures be achieved within the constraints of
the campus?
2. What other health and safety measures must be taken before students, staff and visitors can re-enter?
3. How do we effectively monitor, evaluate, and use the data we collect around new measures?
4. How do we prepare multiple scenarios according to how many people will be allowed back in the buildings at a time?
5. Are we able to accomplish a clear, phased re-entry approach?
6. How do we predict the impact these new measures will have on the use of work and study spaces and the services offered?
7. Should we reconsider cloud solutions to support remote operations?

Together, we are all facing a ‘new normal’. In the short term, the focus should be on getting the most out of your existing technology to support your workplace/campus re-entry. But this experience should also stimulate conversation around what worked, what didn’t, and what integrated software options are available to future-proof your real estate and facilities operations.

Spaced out

When thinking about how their buildings are reconfigured post-lockdown, universities can look beyond mere physical distancing and into more subtle solutions. “While it will be helpful to increase the physical space between students, faculty and campus workers, the reality is that campus spaces are very fluid,” reflects Rebecca Smith of Herman Miller, designers of ergonomic office chairs. “We can separate desks and chairs or change their orientation to reduce face-to-face contact, but we can’t stop people from walking to a restroom or getting a coffee in a break room. For this reason, holistic policies like staggering work schedules and limiting the number of students in a given location will be the most effective.

“Universities should study how people move through their spaces, and understand the design measures they need to take to keep people at safe physical distance.

It’s also important to support home working, providing the ergonomic furniture and technology platforms that staff will need to be productive at home.”

Outdoor areas will form a key part of the new configurations. “With many universities needing to unlock additional space to ensure social distancing, it’s only natural that outdoor areas are being repurposed for the delivery of learning, extending catering provision, and supporting the wellbeing of students and staff alike,” reflects Romy Rawlings, creative director at Norwegian furniture manufacturers Vestre.

“Carefully planned and flexible seating layouts ensure minimal distances are met and provide extended facilities in a safe and caring environment.”

Effective management of those spaces not generally thronged with students and staff will also be key, as universities seek to make their spaces work for them as efficiently as possible. Intralogistics expert SSI Schaefer has been helping universities to optimise their space, storing large volumes within a small footprint. Several years ago, the company worked on a new storage facility for the Bodleian Library, which stores over eight million books and maps for Oxford University. The company was asked to develop a solution to move and safely store these items, including the specialised storage of 14th- and 15th-century hand-drawn maps. These volumes also needed to be in an easily accessible location for simple retrieval within 24 hours, following requests from scholars and students across the world. SSI Schaefer’s solution was a bespoke high-rise, high-density and narrow-aisle shelving structure, providing 3,224 bays and 247,000 linear metres of shelving complete with temperature control and barcoding.

Student stress

More than ever, staff and student healthcare must take into account mental as well as physical risk areas. Ksenia Molodych is marketing manager at Kinetic Software, a leading software provider for student accommodation whose clients make up over 80% of the UK and Ireland’s HEIs. “September’s return to campus will, of course, focus on physical health and social distancing regulations – but it is easy to overlook the additional strain this can bring to the mental wellbeing of both students and staff.

“Take the need to facilitate social distancing and realise safe distances between work and study spaces. From booking desks and rooms to staggering the arrival and departure times of students, relying on a manual process would be overwhelming”– Jos Knops, Planon

“With the demand for student support increasing by 81% in the last five years, another big spike for already stretched teams is expected in the upcoming academic year. From financial concerns to germaphobia, institutions will need to manage student concerns effectively. Now, more than ever before, all eyes are on the sector.”

Looking beyond the students themselves, parents and family will also be concerned about safety measures on campus. “Think about reducing stress levels by sharing all relevant information in advance, from when to arrive and where to go, to where parents or students can take a minute if the arrival experience becomes too overwhelming,” Ksenia recommends. “Make sure the arrival process is thoroughly planned – can you efficiently manage thousands of students arriving on campus whilst keeping them safe? Your involvement should not stop at the point of students moving in: think about, for example, supplying them with food boxes and recipe cards for the first few weeks to reduce the amount of student contact around the halls.

“Encourage social activities that ensure social distancing but increase positive experience and contribute to physical and mental health – outdoor yoga, tennis, even walks around the campus or local area.”

Crowd control

Dr Mike Entwisle, Project Principal at Buro Happold, advocates a holistic approach to estates management. “University life post-Covid will present a vast number of challenges – but the key to tackling them is to look at the campus as a whole, rather than a series of individual lecture theatres, seminar rooms and breakout areas.

“For example, the wider picture requires us to consider how students travel to campus; whether universities will timetable longer lectures with fewer students; how many people can access the toilets; and to factor-in cleaning programmes between each teaching session. Will we see students being based in one room with changing lecturers throughout the day – risking fatigue and a lack of concentration – or will lecturers teach numerous groups in the same location?”

Buro Happold’s own analytics team is working with a number of universities to help them unravel these interrelated issues. “We can map how people flow around a campus, where they start conversations and where the unused spaces are. This can then build a complete picture of how effective each area is – in terms not only of space utilisation and energy efficiency, but also the productivity and wellbeing of its users. We are already seeing how our work is allowing universities to operate at greater capacity than they had feared. This will help to improve the student experience, secure additional income, and reassure students and staff that they will remain safe while having a meaningful presence on campus.

“Giving reassurance to students, staff and parents is going to be crucial over the next few months. Universities need to establish their social distancing plans now, so they can share this with students, in order to prepare for a more reassured return to university in the autumn – and data can play a big part in helping to rebuild confidence again.”

Technology and data will indeed play a huge role in helping universities to manage their estates, and safely control the flow of users around them, in the post-lockdown world. “Transitioning from a traditional model to remote working and remote learning on a large scale over such a short period has been a huge feat,” reflects Jos Knops, director of global product marketing at Planon. “However, the lessening of lockdown restrictions and a gradual return to the ‘new normal’ brings another, potentially bigger challenge.”

One key concern will be compliance: with buildings having lain dormant for such a long time, the risk of legionella increases

Jos urges universities to get to know the technology and integrated software options available to support this process. “Take the need to facilitate social distancing and realise safe distances between work and study spaces. From booking desks and rooms to staggering the arrival and departure times of students, relying on a manual process would be overwhelming.”

Managing a safe, compliant, but still customer-friendly visitor process is similarly impossible without technology and data. “From online pre-registration and digital healthchecks via touchless check-in to the safe transfer to a host or meeting room and automatic check-out when leaving – without a digitised and technology-supported process, all this would be simply impossible.

“With sensor technology, behavioural analytics and predictions, and smart engagement apps, students and staff get real-time insights into actual situations and can be alerted and informed about alternatives. Those universities already using an integrated workplace management system (IWMS) will be able to take advantage of the built-in functionality to help them reorganise their processes and procedures and get back on track with minimum effort. For those who aren’t yet employing this type of software, now is the time to explore the options and be prepared for any similar scenario in the future.”


Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE):
Derwent Facilities Management:
Herman Miller:
SSI Schaefer:
Kinetic Software:
Buro Happold:

Further reading

Herman Miller report: Embracing A New Reality

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