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Organizations grappling with the future of work need to reimagine how they design, plan, and manage space. One place they can turn for unique insights on this is 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.

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 between 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 anecdotes and random observations? 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 long 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 the 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 the 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.

Portions of this article originally appeared on the Work Design Magazine website.

The Sundance Company                                                                
Established in 1976, The Sundance Company has the experience to help you with your commercial real estate needs throughout the Boise Valley. If your requirements include property management, leasing, real estate development, project planning, construction or space planning then look to us. The Sundance Company has more than 1.6 million square feet of office and industrial space available in prime locations in the Boise metropolitan area. More information is available at or 208.322.7300.


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