Ohio University

OHIO’s Strategy and Innovation Office examines space utilization, digital technology integration 

Published: October 30, 2020 Author: Staff reports

OHIO’s Strategic Framework, adopted in August 2019, continues implementation of 11 strategic initiatives. Two strategic initiatives—reimagining space utilization and digital transformation—have found unexpected challenges and opportunities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

A new project seeks to identify synergies between the University’s digital transformation and space utilization initiatives and to implement digital technologies that allow employees and students to work and learn virtually. The project combines the efforts of two areas within the Strategy and Innovation Office: University Planning and the Office of Information Technology (OIT).   

Building on efforts that began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, OHIO’s transition to remote work for most faculty and staff beginning in March motivated OIT to introduce a new flexible work program that will persist beyond the pandemic, according to Chris Ament, chief information officer at OHIO. The program is based on the simple principle that staff can work where they want and when they want, so long as it does not impede teamwork, reduce productivity, or degrade service levels in any way.  

“It’s important to note that flexible work does not always mean remote work—in fact, the program includes an explicit expectation that employees maintain connections with each other and our physical campus,” Ament said. “When we do return to campus, we anticipate most staff will spend at least 20 percent of their time working on-campus.” 

While increasing efficiency is a goal of the project, optimization of space and technology to enhance work and educational environments is a primary objective as well. 

Ohio University is on the forefront of institutions of higher learning reimagining the physical footprint, said Shawna Bolin, associate vice president for university planning. 

“The pandemic has given us an opportunity—a common experience working from home and other remote locations. This gives faculty and staff figurative ‘space’ to think differently about our literal space,” said Bolin. “People have learned that they can be happy and productive outside of a traditional work environment, even as they recognize and miss collaborating in person. We have had to reimagine delivery of experiential learning in spaces that were not designed with physical distancing in mind.” 

According to the OHIO’s Strategic Framework website, “our physical footprint is one of the highest expenses to the institution as it relates to capital and operational investment.” Current physical spaces also may not be conducive to the interdisciplinary work that is critical to advancing the University’s mission. In addition, OHIO is evaluating how it can meet its sustainability goals and commitments. 

In January, OHIO’s Space Utilization co-leads identified five key areas for review and analysis: research space and governance, learning space strategy, meeting and office space strategy, facility divestment, and scheduling and space management. 

Over the last several months, University Planning has been analyzing the space needs of various administrative planning units. The rapid move to remote work, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, has prompted various administrators to re-evaluate how work can be conducted—both in a brick-and-mortar and virtual setting—moving forward. 

OIT is the first OHIO office to fully reimagine its physical footprint. The office is one of several that has been slated to move out of the West Union Street Office Complex (WUSOC) and into new space. In the year prior to the pandemic, Ament and his leadership team recognized the importance of workplace flexibility to support employee engagement, and so proactively piloted a flexible work program in 2019. When the pandemic impacted on-campus operations in March 2020, OIT was ready with alternative work arrangements.

Shared office space will replace personally assigned office space for most OIT staff, including those in leadership positions where private offices have been a traditional norm, Ament said. OIT currently has desk space for 200 employees, but will implement a plan to significantly reduce dedicated space and participate in a new University program that will create flex space in various campus locations for employees who spend the majority of their time off campus. The flexible work program is applicable to student employees as well, he noted. 

OHIO is working to have this new arrangement in place for when employees return to working on campus, and also in conjunction with the renovation project to repurpose WUSOC for the Russ College of Engineering and Technology’s research program. 

“The physical spaces we work in should mirror the workplace culture we aspire to. As we adopt more agile, team-based approaches to getting work done, having on-campus spaces that support that are part of a holistic approach that defines the digital workplace,” Ament said, pointing out that the new flexible work program will allow for more effective use of University resources and cost savings. 

The space utilization strategy will not have a one-size-fits-all implementation. University Planning is working with administrative units to develop customized approaches to physical space and remote work to fit their needs. 

In University Planning’s discussions with administrative areas such as finance, research, legal affairs, and human resources, various strategies are under consideration. Examples include a fully remote work option, an option in which all office employees spend varying percentages of time on campus, an option to keep office employees fully on campus, and hybrid variances on all of the above. 

These strategies have prompted the University to identify and create more shared workspaces on campus, Bolin noted. In addition, OIT is piloting technical innovations, such as Microsoft Teams based soft-phones to replace traditional desk phones, to support employees working remotely, Ament said. 

Bolin outlined a number of benefits of the space utilization and digital transformation collaboration: the project will help OHIO invest in the right types of spaces, including collaborative space, to advance the University’s goals. Moreover, the project also provides a model for future flexible work plans, allowing the University to lower investment in nonstrategic space, promote better productivity, and provide options to employees, which should help with talent recruitment and retention. 

Although Ohio University is embracing remote work, maintaining a connection to colleagues and engaging in the on-campus experience remain critical to the institution, Ament said. But OHIO can use the spaces it has to greater advantage, he noted, focusing on ways to best engage and encourage collaboration among the University community.

The Strategy and Innovation Office includes the Office of Information Technology, University Planning and the Office of Instructional Innovation.