Lessons From Higher Education To Guide Office Design

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Chris Morett
Chris Morett
Chris Morett, PhD, is a campus and workplace planning and activation consultant. He served in university administration and teaching roles after having received his doctorate in sociology with a concentration in work, organizations, and workplace culture. He is the former president of the Higher Education Facilities Management Alliance and a member of the Society for College and University Planning's Mid-Atlantic Council.

The design successes and struggles of colleges and universities provide useful insight for organizations planning space for hybrid and coworking offices.

lessons from higher education

This article was originally published by Allwork.Space.

Organizations grappling with the future of work — unless they go fully remote — need to reimagine how they design, plan, and manage space. One place they can turn for unique insights on this is to the experience of colleges and universities. The reason is simple: employees’ relationship with the physical workplace is starting to look more like students’ relationship with a campus in important ways related to the role of shared spaces for working and meeting.

Space Needs: Traditional Employee vs. Students

The traditional workplace centers on workers who spend most of the day in one spot. They have stability in their personal space — a home base to personalize, keep things securely, and do heads-down work.

Meetings are infrequent for most employees. When they happen, they rarely require specialized or differentiated spaces, usually involve small groups, and are flexible in their timing. Aggregate demand for shared spaces tends not to fluctuate significantly through the year. Managing space on a daily basis is straightforward.

On campus, things look different. Students — at least, undergraduates — rarely have their own private or secure individual workspace. Shared spaces have long been the norm. Space needs vary by the day, week, and month in ways that students themselves can’t predict that far in advance, and no student is the same. The most itinerant students may need to find multiple spaces daily, at times that are dictated by their class schedule.

Group meeting needs are similarly hard to predict. Moreover, groups tend to be less flexible in their space needs than individuals, for obvious reasons, while the supply of group meeting rooms is more limited.

From the institutional perspective, multiple space types are needed in terms of size, furnishings, visual and audio privacy, technology, power outlets, and more. Varying location and time needs further complicate global demand. Institutions need to work to get the right mix of spaces designed and available via either a first-come, first-served model or some scheduling process.

There are also significant aggregate fluctuations in space needs. Most prominent is the rush for study space during final exams. This demand spike comes only two or three times a year, and is an outlier of sorts, but there’s no time that’s more important to get right. Another example is the reduction in facility needs during semester breaks and during lighter summer and winter terms.

What lessons can offices take from higher education?

Colleges and universities don’t always get space right, but their successes and challenges provide useful insight for organizations looking to learn. The factors to consider for effective office design are varied — the quality and quantity of spaces, scheduling, research and analytics, and worker flexibility — yet all important.

Below are questions and observations about these factors to help guide the design, planning, and management of office and coworking spaces.


  • What will your policies and procedures be for booking space?
  • What will the split be of first-come, first-served spaces versus reservable spaces?
  • What mix of centrally available versus restricted spaces will you offer? The fewer restricted spaces there are, the more efficient your space utilization will be.
  • For spaces that are drop-in, will there be any effort to make vacancy information available in real time?
  • Will scheduling be done centrally, self-service, or from some middle ground — e.g., a department can have one or two workers with authority to book spaces.
  • By whom or what system will workflow and approvals be managed? Who will handle complaints? They’ll roll in, don’t worry!

Research and analytics 

  • How will you measure supply versus demand? Will you resort to anecdote and random observation? This has taken on added importance as the function of physical space is being reinvented.
  • Are you measuring usage patterns of existing spaces or researching the kinds of spaces that would best support organizational effectiveness? Are you gathering feedback from the right individuals?
  • Space that gets reserved is easier to assess than first-come, first-served space if the reservation system collects and organizes the data in a usable way. Reservation data aren’t perfect, but you might be surprised at the fascinating data dashboards that can be created from them.

Quality and Quantity of Facilities 

  • Do you have an enterprise-wide workspace strategy or a more scattershot approach?
    • Higher education flirts with an enterprise-wide approach at times. A formal and holistic approach is more likely to occur in concert with campus master planning, space utilization studies, or capital planning, as institutional leaders work with outside consultants to gauge usage patterns and plan for future needs.
    • Outside of the planning process, siloes often re-emerge. The library pays attention to the library, staff in charge of student centers gauge those spaces, etc. If a campus has bridge-builders or systems thinkers that are allowed to have influence, then facility management has a better chance of being integrative.
    • Part of the issue is higher education’s decentralized admin structure. Be careful of similar forces in your workplace.
  • How will you balance convenience versus efficiency? Would you rather have a bit too much space or a higher risk of users not finding space? When is the cost of redundant space in multiple locations worth the reduced travel? What are your utilization targets?
  • What is your plan for flexing your space supply in the short and medium term?
    • Higher education makes heavy use of longer hours, such as all-night study during exams. This doesn’t seem plausible in most other sectors. Higher ed. also pulls other spaces into service, such as dining halls, during demand spikes. On campuses, students can squat in classrooms which — even if it’s not a formal strategy — is clearly a popular one. When it’s nice out, outdoor spaces also absorb demand. Flexible furniture is another way to adjust your supply of rooms.
  • If your spaces become more transient and public, have you considered safety and security measures, in terms of facility design and usage as well as awareness campaigns?

User flexibility  

Worker (or student) flexibility is an important piece of the facility puzzle. That is not a euphemism for having workers deal with inconvenience. The sources of flexibility, in addition to individual adaptiveness, include the inherent flexibility of one’s job tasks and organizational policy regarding timing and location of work.

  • Do you know your employees’ flexibility, can you increase their flexibility, and can you capitalize on their flexibility?
    • Higher education yields one crystal clear lesson: While students have time constraints such as classes, outside work, and caregiving, otherwise they have extreme amounts of flexibility in when, where, and how they work. Professors have little concern with when or where homework and outside-of-class projects get done. This considerably eases demand for shared space in every way. Projects that require highly specialized facilities are one exception, but that’s the exception that proves the rule in that the required physical presence is highly intentional.
    • One factor that permits such distributed decision making is that student academic work involves a variety of tasks, including reading, studying, and taking notes. If there are constraints that require students to be on campus at certain times – perhaps due to a short break between classes – they can choose the task that aligns with the physical conditions they will inhabit.
  • Do your team members need personalized spaces? Students generally do not. No framed pictures. No knickknacks. They travel light and use laptops and cloud storage. In the olden days, it was USB drives. Computing centers were part of the shared space mix previously but much less so at this point.
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