The impact of the COVID pandemic on space planning and management across university estates

David Craven, who specialises in Property and Facilities Management appointments spanning the education and public sectors across the North of England, talks to three Space Management professionals across differing Northern Universities to gauge their thoughts on how the COVID pandemic has affected their own Space Management strategy. 

David spoke with Michael Freeman, Space Manager at the University of Salford; Ashley Hopps, Head of Space Management and Timetabling at Sheffield Hallam University; and Matt Leng, Head of Space and Learning Environment, at Teeside University.

How has the COVID Pandemic affected your own space management strategy for this year?

Michael Freeman

Thanks to changing attitudes and ever-improving network capabilities, remote working was effective in ensuring many directorates performed as business as usual. My shift is now towards space planning for social distancing safety.  For teaching, the university adopted a blend between onsite and online teaching whilst continuing. The impact of reducing room capacities but delivering teaching at normal class sizes created an increased demand for larger specialist and generic classroom spaces.

Ashley Hopps

COVID has set back space strategy. Significant changes in teaching delivery mode -classroom capacities are lower for social distancing and on-campus sessions temporarily reduced and run alongside online sessions.  Some positives may be changes to practices in the long term, for example continuing with blended learning online/on campus would reduce demand on estate.

Matt Leng

Like most people non-urgent space projects (moves, changes, refurbishments) have been paused or scrapped. Strategy has focused on providing space only where it has not been possible to move the space related activity to a virtual or remote activity.

What effects have the increased student numbers had on the demand for space?


The rise in student numbers has often been generated by students opting for courses utilising specialist facilities rather than traditional lecture and classroom based learning, as seen by our growth in the areas of Arts & Media and Health & Society that increased demand for such facilities as film studios and clinical simulation spaces. Provision of specialist spaces in existing buildings is a significant challenge as there are often few vacant areas to meet the requirement for these construction projects.

Although the rise in student numbers had an effect in increasing demand in expected areas of catering, library services, professional support and academic office space etc. the growth has also had significant impact on areas of specialist teaching, and student health and wellbeing spaces where space provision has been more difficult when construction has not involved a new build.


No significant increase in space demand due to above (changes to more online learning).


The challenge has been related to providing socially distanced teaching space – we are effectively achieving around only 30% of what the usual capacity would be which has required a huge increase in remote learning. Again no different to most places. Non-teaching spaces have been turned into socially distanced seminar rooms, and we have made arrangements with local organisations to bolster the amount of space available for teaching.

Professional/Corporate services departments have traditionally occupied a considerable workplace footprint on campus.  Has the enforced move to remote-working for these departments helped to increase the rate of cultural change to agile-working?


Since March 2020 all staff wherever possible at The University of Salford worked remotely ensuring directorates performed at business as usual. Thus, demonstrating that doing things differently is possible and remote working is an option to full time office-based working. As such the benefits of remote working such as reduced office costs and demand for space has been recognised by senior leadership with discussion on remote working becoming a solution to demand for space.


Has shown ability to work from home, surveys showing staff are largely happy working from home, but some level of in-person interaction would be welcome.  I expect demand for office space to be less after pandemic and estate will adjust accordingly – could be the end of the office – and staff and students sharing open spaces for work and study


Yes. The most important element of this has been the roll-out of the technology to support remote working. The urgency to move to remote working has hugely speeded up the availability of this technology – in other conditions it would have taken years to move to where we are now. And now home/remote working is being viewed as a genuine long-term alternative to office working which could potentially have space saving benefits. However, it will be interesting to see if this lasts when lockdowns are (hopefully) a thing of the past. It seems there are two groups emerging – those who prefer working from the office and those who prefer working from home.

Assuming the space efficiencies generated by the above, how has the vacated space been utilised (e.g. to offer more academic space, exit leases to reduce costs, drive commercial income etc)?


The University of Salford and Crescent Masterplan provides a framework for the disposal and redevelopment of parts of the university estate. I have identified that support staff reducing their desk numbers to 60% of their existing space creates enough space to accommodate the decanted directorates. As such monies generated through the sale of buildings previously thought required to accommodate decanted spaces, such as renting external space and/or temporary modular buildings, can now be spent redeveloping the university estates due to my space management strategy.

The space efficiencies I have identified through remote working and online teaching will significantly reduce the footprint and cost for the new planned building.


Not at that stage of planning yet.


No change at the moment, but if remote working becomes established space assigned to corporate/professional services will undoubtedly reduce and will be given over to academic activities or shed.

How has the current situation affected the wider estates strategy?


The University of Salford like other higher education institutions is facing financial challenges as a result of the current situation.  The university has committed to a blend of online and on-campus teaching meaning all buildings have opened incurring operating costs and additional social distancing costs such as increased cleaning, COVID testing etc.  As such the estates strategy for this academic year has meant rapidly restructuring its operations, such as deferring some planned works and projects.

Longer term the wider estates strategy maybe shaped further by the current coronavirus pandemic situation as we see more staff agile/remote working, greater online learning, potential decline in student numbers etc. then this could result in a smaller estate, improved energy usage, lower estate budgets, fewer construction projects, etc.


It will have made universities more receptive to changing teaching methods and looking for competitive advantage and an estate that supports that – for example, if ‘applied’ is the advantage , could result in higher specialist facilities, or groups specialist facilities to reduce overall estate and fewer standard classroom teaching blocks, could be the end of the traditional lecture theatre. Perhaps more social spaces, for students to interact and implementing idea of sticky campus.


There is an acknowledgment that attendance at lectures may be a thing of the past, and that lecture type events could be adequately delivered online with greater on-campus time dedicated to practical/seminar activities. I foresee a reduction in the number of traditional lecture rooms with an increase in specialist space, or informal learning space.

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