Living with Sustained Social Distancing
If social distancing represents even a medium-term expedient, most organisations will run out of space and cash before they can correct their buildings to become Covid-secure and still deliver the same capacity
With estimates varying between 75% and 90%, the net reduction in operating capacity we should anticipate is beyond the resources of most organisations.
To take classrooms, for instance, a typical 30 seat room will hold not more than 8 with strict social distancing rules applied. A class of 30 will therefore need a room normally suitable for 120 or more students (of which there typically tend to be fewer on our campuses). We will therefore run out of rooms of the appropriate size very quickly. We could of course disperse the group across four 30 seat rooms but that adds the resource pressure of staffing multiple rooms where previously we would have had only one to resource. In both cases, the costs of delivery are directly affected.
Nor is it easy simply to accept that the experience in a 30 seat room with 8 people will be the same, or that to put 8 in one room and stream the class to other settings will be considered fair or equitable. Social distancing, therefore, fractures normal practices to levels at which they become a resource headache.
However, there is a case for arguing that if we accept reduced demand, we may also be able to accommodate different operating models:
Our classes and physical experiences will become better in quality;
We will focus more on creative encounters and less on direct delivery of information that can be provided on-line; and
On-line provision will open up scope for much greater use of media and content, albeit that setting high production values begins to become a much more significant factor with clear implications for costs.
Let us consider, for a moment, that there will be a return to a semblance of normality with little or no need for social distancing at some point when the virus has been defeated. If we have invested in substantial remodelling of spaces to accommodate socially distanced provision, we will not, given the costs, want to remodel all our spaces again to return to a closer more efficient model. Therefore, in the short-term, we should plan for a radical reduction in on-campus loads and respond with re-furnishing solutions to enable existing spaces to be Covid-secure and capable of sustaining socially-distant working practices. However, we should not be creating campuses that are effectively facilitating activities which do not require direct contact, or which could be mediated on-line; the quality and physicality of the experience must not be capable of being replicated by other means. This will be an important test of whether it will be worth the inevitable risks of coming back on to campus.
We should expect greater emphasis to be placed on the conscious design of experiences. Just as there are scale economies to be found in on-line practices, there are limitations too. As these emerge, the need for high quality interactions will drive demand back to more imaginative working and learning environments on campus. Fatigue with on-line experiences will be a relevant factor and, while there may no longer be a demand for the lecture, there will be a natural human need to return to direct forms of social interaction.
On a very practical note, we should anticipate that our view of time in a more socially-distant future could be radically altered. Weekend working and shift systems have the potential to spread demand across more available hours. The tyranny of a tidal 9-5 Monday-Friday working model, which was already being questioned, is even more challenged by Covid. Longer opening/operating hours and additional use of evening and weekend slots provide capacity in labs and other specialist facilities to support Covid-secure working practices. For students who cannot expect to have their full experience on-line, this may be a vital lifeline to complete their studies. Consideration needs to be given to moving to, for example, three lab sessions per day with evening slots added to traditional two-slot lab timetables (adding 50% capacity); if weekends are included we gain 40% by just using two slots on Saturday and Sunday but potentially 110% capacity by introducing both measures). While not necessarily sufficient and very expensive to resource, this model does at least offer the prospect of enabling students to complete work in specialist facilities with reasonably strict social distancing in place.
Much needs to be done on a case-by-case basis to examine the possibility of specific facilities being made Covid-secure in such ways. However, the important principle is that to avoid the capacity losses that flow from social distancing constraints. Extending hours is a critical lever; difficult even to discuss pre-Covid, it may increasingly become a new norm. Many threads of work need not come back onto campus at all and this is the most immediate and practical of the challenges.