School Offices Need Corporate Designs

Walled offices and cubicle farms are no longer an effective use of university back-office spaces.

Work nooks at Criteo’s Boston offices are an example of work/relaxation spaces desired by Millenials. Photo: Darrin Hunter, courtesy Dyer Brown

By Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ, LEED AP, Dyer Brown Architects

Should universities seek leaders with a significant business background? This question comes up frequently as some trustees seek corporate resumes to head their colleges. It raises a related notion: Are universities best operated like a big business? Opinions differ on this highly charged topic, but one thing is clear: Institutions of higher education spend billions on back-office operations. On most campuses, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education website, essential administrative spaces account for as much as a quarter of a school’s total square footage.

Learn more about effective use of back-office facilities in our podcast with Rachel Woodhouse.

Setting aside leadership debates, it’s clear schools should treat their back-office facilities just like any student-centered spaces—as a carefully managed and highly efficient asset. A good starting point is to take a portfolio perspective when dealing with real estate and carefully evaluate the business impact of on- and off-campus assets. This helps all schools and is particularly relevant for urban campuses growing in already dense environments.

Today, more than ever, university leaders should be “looking at some of the back-office operations and ways we can be leaner, more efficient and…actually add value to the student experience,“ said Cathy Sandeen, vice-president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, Washington. So it’s not surprising that innovations in corporate workplaces are being adopted at leading institutions.

When considering how to use university back-office facilities, focus on varied individual and collaboration spaces such as this at the Crimson Hexagon Boston offices. Photo: Darrin Hunter, courtesy Dyer Brown

One trend is adding coworking areas and new multipurpose zones to maximize available space, stated Jen Taylor, a senior project manager at Dyer Brown Architects, working with several universities around Boston. “Many colleges are desperate for spaces where students can collaborate and work on group projects,” she added. It mirrors steps taken to add collaboration zones and coworking areas for faculty and departmental staffs. Cornell Univ.’s Bloomberg Center (Ithaca, NY), for example, trades enclosed offices for layouts similar to those used by Google and Pixar. Elsewhere, faculty are migrating to informal open areas or touchdown workspaces, with nearby huddle rooms for small group meetings.

Back-office users need the same innovations. While an alumni-relations office might desire more traditional workplace solutions—enclosed offices and tall workstation partitions—the IT department’s Millennial users often demand a more modern aesthetic and wide-open bench/desk furnishings. Any back offices competing to recruit and retain top talent should boost the design aesthetic and add more flexible work approaches.

As it is for students, back-office spaces should consider employee health and well being. An example is this break/meeting area at Arup’s Boston offices. Photo: Darrin Hunter, courtesy Dyer Brown

For many universities, it’s less about extravagance than simply making operations smarter and more efficient. The Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, for example, implemented a university-wide effort to slash operating costs and energy use. Eliminating redundant individual workspaces and clearly defining personal storage etiquette ultimately reduced overall workspace by 35%. It also expedited business processes by more than half. At Yale Univ. (New Haven, CT), new back offices with large collaboration zones and glass partitions cut operating costs even as more innovative ideas blossomed.

Another big winner at any school is to convert existing, unrelated spaces into new offices. Capture underutilized spaces as collaboration zones or teambuilding areas, stated Dyer Brown’s Taylor, whether at the far end of a corridor or in a former file-storage nook. “The results activate spaces and energize work teams,” she added. “That’s how we turn underperforming assets into lean, efficient hives of creativity—places that truly add value to the university experience.”

Rachel Woodhouse, NCIDQ, LEED AP, is principal and director of operations at Dyer Brown Architects, Boston, where she applies her expertise and experience in the institutional and corporate markets to her work with design teams and client groups.

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