There is no doubting the positive impact on employee wellbeing and productivity of moving to new flexible ways of working, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, agile working also presents a challenge/opportunity for organisations in relation to building occupation.
This is an interesting and complex issue for the higher education sector and one that rightly took centre stage at a recent Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) event. Those who manage the estate strategy are fully aware that agile working could unlock some real potential by helping them to meet business critical financial and sustainability targets. But, as ever, it’s all about finding a solution that works for all stakeholders, and in a higher education environment it’s not just about agile working but also about providing the best environment for blended or mixed mode learning too.
Professional services – an easy target?
With the shift to working at home for part of the working week being the norm, organisations will be testing the idea that people will come to the workplace to collaborate, confer and socialise and for a sense of community – but not necessarily to do task-intensive work. These findings will no doubt help shape the long-term decisions made about the real estate footprint, with studies showing in the commercial sector, for example, that many organisations could reduce the office space they need by over 20%.
The professional services departments of universities, which quite rightly tend to have large staff numbers, are where we are seeing much work around space planning and utilisation. By embracing agile working methods, there is a huge potential to utilise buildings more efficiently. This not only provides a better, more adaptable environment for those who work there but it can also release space that can be re-purposed to provide teaching facilities. This addresses the need for more teaching space driven by increasing student numbers without adding to the overall floor area of the campus
Well thought-through desk sharing and better meeting and video conferencing facilities can afford significant savings. Smart meeting room technology can not only make meetings easier to run, but with the right intuitive apps and controls, the technology is both easier for people to use and the IT team to support. As well as creating a more inclusive and enjoyable place to work, this can increase productivity and drive real cost savings through better longevity of equipment, reduced travel costs (due to more effective remote collaboration) and lower energy costs.
Looking through the academic optic
Applying these same principals to academic faculties is a sensitive and complex issue. As we know, many academic members of staff are staunch supporters of the ‘single cell’ approach, with confidentiality of work and meetings often cited. However, one of the impacts of the pandemic has been to bring into sharp focus how people work in offices – and will work in the future. So now is a prime time to revisit what options there might be. It may be an obvious point but those estates departments who spend the time mapping out how academics work – so, walking or working in their shoes – are more likely to be able to create and successfully implement new ways of working.
Enhancing the student experience
As mentioned above, technology will also have a major role to play in not only enabling the adoption of agile working but also in supporting the best blended learning for students. There has been great emphasis on returning to face to face teaching, which has been a priority for students. However, the flexibility of online learning has provided students with significant advantages – for example, for commuter students and those with mobility challenges. Further development of the best way to apply technology to effectively support a blend of face to face and virtual teaching is needed, but the benefits of this mixed mode approach are worth pursuing and again can assist with increasing space efficiency.
Helping to meet sustainability targets
Adopting agile working can also really unlock the problem of how to tackle an expensive, older estate. With an estimated 30% of the HE estate dating back to the 1960s, much is now spatially inefficient, with poor thermal performance, making it expensive to run both in terms of opex costs and carbon emissions. To compound things, the presence of asbestos, poor accessibility and sometimes a listed status make refurbishment both challenging and costly. By embracing agile working, a university has the opportunity to significantly reduce the amount of space it occupies enabling it to take inefficient assets offline, repurpose them or even mothball them to save costs.
This not only helps financially but can also have a major impact in helping universities to achieve the increasingly ambitious sustainability targets they have. We are working with a number of university estate directors where increasing efficiency and reducing the size of the estate is an important part of achieving net zero carbon goals. Adopting agile working and introducing innovative space planning can lead to a reduction of space allocation of between 30% and 50% – this can also lead to a reduction of between 20% and 40% in operational carbon.
Combined with interventions such as wall and roof insulation, cladding, heat pumps, low energy lighting, replacement windows etc, this can play a significant part in identifying the roadmap to net zero carbon.
Taking a view for the long term
The higher education sector is having, and will continue to have, a challenging time financially. The golden age of student fees has been in decline for the last five years or so as costs and inflation have gone up while fee levels have stayed the same; university pension funds are not in great shape and the last year has been challenging to say the least. With limited levers to pull, maximising the efficiency of the estate and reducing costs by releasing space is a real opportunity
As well as the financial benefits, the combined approach of reducing the overall size of the estate and increasing the energy efficiency of the building stock can play a large part in making net carbon zero targets for a university far more achievable. Clearly implementing these strategies can take time and is not without its challenges. However, we believe the potential to be gained in financial and sustainability terms for the long-term, and providing the best environment to people to work and learn in, will be well worth the investment.
Stephen Scott is Partner and National Head of Education at Rider Levett Bucknall
Call Stephen on 020 7398 8300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org