Álvaro Villar
General Manager
Expert Contributor

Back to School: Why Offices and Classrooms will Never be the Same

By Alvaro Villar | Tue, 03/23/2021 - 13:04

As the world eagerly waits to get “back to normal,” students may well be among the most desperate to resume life as they knew it before. Students from all levels of education have not only missed out on in-person learning, they’ve also missed out on the significant connections and personal development that comes with it; a reality our corporate world is no stranger to.

The Financial Times had it right when they said, “Learning is a social act. People want to learn with humans, they want the validation of other humans.” In our offices, it is the same thing. Over the last several months, we’ve been striving to build and maintain connections in the virtual world, and while we’re connected most of the time, connecting is not really happening for us. The university experience is a rich set of human interactions that provide knowledge, experience and friendships that stay with us for a lifetime, and even though virtual tools are here to stay, this experience should be no different in the future.

COVID-19 has permanently transformed how and where we work. Numerous studies have made it clear that the future of work is flexible. The university experience is moving in the same direction: a flexible experience where students will take the best of both, the physical and the virtual world.

The trend is clear, education at every level will be hybrid, we will make better use of digital and virtual tools so that everything that we can learn effectively online we will learn that way. And that will free some time for face-to-face experiences of collective and immersive learning that gives us purpose and helps us stay connected with our colleagues and institutions. That, I hope, will bring out the best of each and every one of us.

During the COVID months, we were faced with the challenge of reimagining the way we work, evaluating every piece of the puzzle and asking ourselves what we really valued from an office. The same is happening to students, who are wondering whether or not they should go back to traditional learning or explore new ways to learn by combining the best tools they have at hand. One thing is true, the connections we are able to build while navigating in-person learning and truly connecting with our peers will remain as valuable and fundamental as ever.

According to the WeWork and brightspot strategy study, overall student satisfaction has declined by 27 percent, a tremendous drop. We also found that the two most important reasons students value campuses are “in-person classes” and “being together with friends,” areas of the student experience that have seen the greatest decline since the pandemic outbreak.

Ultimately, as we reimagine education at every level, there are a couple of concepts we should never forget.

  • The concept of learning goes far beyond walls and a computer:

Learning doesn’t just happen inside the classroom, much less in front of a computer; true learning happens when you take everything you absorb during class and give it an insightful meaning applicable during social and environmental interaction.

  • The way we learn will be increasingly hybrid:

The COVID-19 outbreak accelerated many of the changes we were expecting to see in decades to come. Just like we’ve experienced with our offices, learning institutions will have to embrace a flexible future and adapt to a world that will demand the best of in-person and remote education.

  • Virtual learning is here to stay:

Universities and learning institutions around the world have demonstrated they can deliver remote education in a safe and effective manner. We’ve also learned we no longer need to be geographically based in the same city as our university. We might as well get a degree from a Chinese or Australian institution; however, studying from home also has its downfalls: inadequate space to really focus, unwelcome distractions and increasingly blurred lines between study and leisure reveals that the ideal solution might very well be something between the two extremes. A whole new world of possibilities opens up for us to explore. 

The campus experience will be reimagined

Just as companies of all sizes are rethinking the traditional office space right now, learning institutions are reevaluating space needs in and off campus. It’s controversial; while major campuses might need to rethink their spatial footprint, remote learning institutions might be looking to pivot their strategies and consider providing adequate spaces for their student base. In the end, students truly need a place where they can meaningfully engage and connect. This major shift is already happening.

Moving forward it is important for universities to recognize that even a little in-person engagement can go a long way for students. With universities having to pivot to remote learning or hybrid approaches, many institutions have been looking for solutions to expand their campuses and accommodate students. WeWork, through its new program, WeWork for Education, is addressing this need by helping universities provide their students with a space to work and study that prioritizes safety. As an example, New York University  leased WeWork space last fall near its Shanghai campus to serve more than 3,000 Chinese students. The partnership converted offices into classrooms, lecture halls, and study rooms to extend its campus network.

For many years, the immersive experiences of a physical campus community have made traditional higher education unique and impactful. In the near future, learning institutions, just like companies, will have to create their own hybrid models, assessing their students and faculty’s own needs to provide the best-in-class hybrid learning.

I’ve said all along, 2020 wasn’t easy for anyone, it pushed us in a way we would’ve never imagined, but it’s time to move forward, to dream big, to build and rebuild, to reinvent every aspect of our lives. If we seize the moment as the biggest opportunity we’ve ever had to rethink what wasn’t working, we can only expect a brighter, more productive future for everyone.

Photo by:   Alvaro Villar