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Our friend Shawn Miller is the director of Duke Learning Innovation. Recently, the team announced that they were downsizing from their pre-COVID offices and moving to a new space. Rethinking space seems to be a trend within higher education. Shawn graciously agreed to share some of the thinking behind this physical space downsizing.

Q: First, let’s get everyone situated. What is Duke Learning Innovation?

A: We recently tweaked the language in our mission statement, so I’m going to go with that: “Duke Learning Innovation helps Duke students learn more, and helps more people learn from Duke. In our name as in our work, we put learning first. We define innovation as the transformation necessary for Duke to achieve its educational mission.”

We’re essentially what some would call an “integrated center”—forming in 2017 when we formally combined the Center for Instructional Technology and Online Duke. Together, we have four teams that consult and collaborate with Duke instructors, conduct research on teaching and learning, lead investigations into new learning technologies, and design online learning opportunities for both local and global audiences to learn from Duke.

Q: Tell us about your move. How are the two spaces different? And what was the thinking behind the move?

A: Given the varied experiences staff had shifting to remote work during the pandemic, Duke gave most of its units a lot of autonomy in setting remote and/or flexible work arrangements moving forward. Over the course of several discussions, our team decided that we mostly preferred hybrid work arrangements wherein most of us would be primarily remote but available on campus and/or at our central location one to two days per week or as needed.

I should note that we also have a few staff who either a) prefer to work from a nonhome location and/or b) don’t have home locations that are really feasible for long-term work from home (no office space, lack of sufficient internet speed or access, etc.). Those members of our team have dedicated space in our new central location.

Pre-pandemic, we already worked in two spaces: we had a larger, central location in downtown Durham that provided everyone a dedicated workspace, and we maintained a small “landing space” on campus where we could schedule meetings with faculty and other university partners. In some ways we had been practicing for this new reality for the past three years—using tools like Slack and Zoom to stay connected. When the pandemic hit, we over all had a really smooth adjustment to working fully remote since we had already established many of the remote working norms that other teams had to quickly learn how to manage.

Our new central location, which we share with Duke Continuing Studies, Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Duke Science and Society, has long been a space we’ve used for large events and drop-in co-working while downtown. We actually looked at moving here four years ago, but the space available was too small to accommodate dedicated offices and desks for our growing unit. Now with most of us adopting flexible work arrangements, we can accommodate those who need dedicated space and still have plenty of nondedicated space to provide drop-in work areas and meeting rooms as our teams need them.

Bottom line: because we can actually do most of our work well (if not better) remotely or flexibly, we were able to reduce our central, physical footprint while still providing staff with spaces for meetings, workshops and social events.

Q: We know that it is early days, but what lessons about the future of physical office space do you think your move might signal to the rest of us across the higher education ecosystem? Coming out of the pandemic—if we ever truly come out—how do you think academia might think differently about space?

A: A few months ago, I tweeted that the future of work strongly parallels the future of learning. I think remote work efforts herald the coming of what we’ll eventually find more acceptable or commonplace for teaching and learning as well. Specifically, reimagining the use of classrooms and physical spaces to be more engaging and capitalize on the parts of being together that matter.

I went on a similar mini-rant on LinkedIn where I said flexibility is the key to the future—whether that’s giving students more flexibility in our pedagogies, in their courses or pathways, or giving our staff more flexibility in their lives and work. The parallels are so clear here between how we approach the future of learning and the future of work: Do we trust students? Do we trust staff? Is learning and work only bound by time in a physical location ("butts in seats") or can we finally move to being results- and outcomes-driven?

I’m sure some people reading this will think that’s pretty naïve. I won’t disagree that there are challenges. Managers have to rethink the way they manage—hopefully focusing more on outcomes and goals versus documenting hours on tasks. Staff have to orient themselves to daily or weekly planning their own schedules with regard to location. Social connection and team-building have to be done more planfully and purposefully.

Finally, I’ll just add that some may find it interesting that the teaching and learning folks have their main offices in downtown Durham versus at the center of campus. If anything, my read on that is that we’re setting ourselves up for the future of learning at Duke, which like most institutions will not only serve our traditional undergraduate and graduate populations on campus, but will work with them as they push further outside of campus and will ultimately expand to serve more return learners (alumni, etc.) as well as the broader regional and global communities that want to engage with Duke.

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