However, universities have a big advantage in that the campus environment is an ideal eco-system to enable engaged students and many modern tech companies such as Google and Airbnb are in fact designing their own HQs as a campus, where the workplace is fluid and co-exists alongside recreational space.
“What business would allow offices to remain vacant for a large part of the week?”
This was the message delivered in a thought-provoking plenary session at the UHR Conference in Brighton, from Sue Holmes, director of estates & facilities management at Oxford Brookes University and Philip Ross, Founder and CEO of UnGroup and Cordless Group.
Holmes spoke in more detail about some of the “boring” but essential aspects of running a university estate, pointing out that with an incremental squeeze on finances, it falls to estate managers to ensure that operations are run with commercial sensibilities.
“What business would allow offices to remain vacant for [a large part] of the week?”, asked Holmes, pointing out that office space can typically take up a quarter of university estate and only be used one-third of the time. “Why do we need to empty a classroom to enable lightbulbs to be re-fitted?”
She dissected pressures around driving efficiencies on campus, maximising occupancy of teaching space, office space and residential accommodation in the summer months.
“What’s wrong with expecting office space to be shared space?” she asked, also pointing out that students now expect universities to be creative in providing social learning spaces on campus, which fell to HR and estates management to achieve.
According to some students, “if it doesn’t have a Starbucks, it’s not a social learning space”, said Holmes.
Ross continued on the topic of changing student expectations and the changing world of work, pointing out that embedding technology into the management of a university is paramount, using technology to allow staff to book teaching space, and to make students lives easier.
“Do you work with any of the sharing economies that millennials all use?” charged Ross, citing companies such as Zipcar, Netflix, Airbnb and BookMooch. Nodding to a statistic that 25% of all master’s students in the UK are Chinese, he added, “Are you really prepared for Chinese students, with wifi seamless and everywhere?”
Universities have to be familiar with the lives and expectations of their Generation Z students who are increasingly international, said Ross.
As an expert on workplaces of the future, he echoed Holmes’ comments about sharing office space. Having worked on the new BBC HQ, he shared that “no one in BBC Worldwide has a desk”.
Ross was adamant that enabling fluid learning spaces and reducing departmental silos is critical. “Digital disruption will affect us all,” he said, but he urged that those who embrace the opportunity to adapt will create ecosystems that prosper.