Spatial resilience: a post-Covid way of thinking

24 August 2021      Cheryl Pick, Projects and Engagement Manager

Today, AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates) publishes a new report ‘Blended Working in the Higher Education Sector: A review of the post-pandemic university workplace’ which looks at the way the collective experience of working off-campus during the Covid-19 pandemic has changed attitudes, perceptions and habits in higher education across the world. View the report now.

AUDE commissioned leading architecture practice Hassell Studio to help examine these issues. Increasingly and for more and more people “Work is what you do, not where you do it”. This is a powerful proposition, that is changing how many HEIs see their workplace working for them in the future. And with that comes an opportunity to re-iterate the purpose of the campus – to bring people and ideas together and to re-imagine how university estates may operate in terms of size, shape and model in the future.

How might HEI’s translate these concepts into a blended workplace that is a practical and actionable vision of the future that is ‘fit for purpose’? What have we learnt from our pandemic experience that helps us move towards something notably different than would have been considered in the past? The report is based on a survey of members of AUDE’s Space Management Special Interest Group, and of the Higher Education Space Management Group.

The concept of ‘spatial resilience’ emerges from the report; the idea that not only do our campuses need to be more flexible than they have ever been before, in the ways that our built spaces can be configured and used; not only do they need to be adaptable over time as changing technologies affect teaching and learning behaviours; not only do they need to be ‘hackable’ in the moment so that users can adapt the space as they see fit at the time; not only do they need to be built with health and wellbeing in mind, aware of light and fresh air, green spaces and views; but they also need to be of high quality that endures over the long term.

In combination this is a strong new statement of where our campus buildings are going, at a point in the pandemic where our universities are still trialling options and working towards a “blended working future”. We don’t know all the answers and the survey responses help to validate that uncertainty is the current shared position, and that this is OK as the entire sector gently “feels it’s way”. 59% of survey respondents envisage that agile working will be implemented by the end of the year. But there remains significant uncertainty about the ratio of F2F teaching to remote teaching; 59% are not yet confident about the room booking systems that are an essential element of flexibility; and 74% do not yet have the tools in place to monitor space utilisation effectively.

Speaking on behalf of AUDE’s Space Management Group, Dave Beavis (Space Manager at the University of Exeter) said: “This report represents a timely pulse-check as to how the UK HE sector is implementing blended-working, and the survey results are striking. 89% of respondents indicated that they intend to be operating some degree of blended working practices by the end of 2022, although the rate of change to adopt these practices is likely to differ widely by institution, dictated in part by the success of any pilots and the roll out of supporting infrastructure and associated policies. The report identifies that most (79%) survey respondents believed they would benefit from a ‘space dividend’ after adopting blended working practices, and furthermore most intend to repurpose much of this space to an alternative use. For many institutions this will likely be student facing spaces as, overall, the survey indicated institutions believe they will require more study and social spaces, but less individual and small offices. So, blended working will provide many HEIs with the opportunity to reimagine the estate in terms of size and shape, whilst likely offering some greater degree of flexibility and resilience. It will be very interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.”

Jane White, AUDE Executive Director, said: “The number one driver of change is the desire to see space used more efficiently within the existing footprint. But other reasons also emerge strongly – the push towards greater environmental sustainability; staff and student health and wellbeing; and of course our financial efficiency also feeds into this. Change in policy of the scale that is envisaged involves a real shift in corporate understanding and that can’t happen instantly. There are many studies on how workplaces will change after the upheaval of the pandemic, but few are specific to higher education. Academic workplaces are different to commercial offices, and academic activity varies hugely between faculties and across the academic year. Overall, respondents to the survey envisage fewer individual or small offices and an increased need for technology-enabled spaces, such as smaller rooms for synchronous online teaching and meetings.”

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