How to retrofit the office for an era of hybrid work, lessons from Columbia Business School

For years, Columbia Business School held the dubious distinction of having one of the worst campuses among the world’s top business schools. Not any more. In January, the 106-year-old institution opened a gleaming 492,000 square foot facility that may finally put the school’s past architectural woes to rest.

Designed by the New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and FXCollaborative, the $600 million campus boasts a network of thoughtfully-designed spaces for learning and gathering — in person and virtually.

Long before the pandemic, Columbia had been studying remote-learning solutions for international students and guest lecturers dialing in from afar. And on a recent tour, architects showed off a classroom that would be the envy of any office seeking to retrofit their space for era of hybrid work.

Attend to the acoustics

Poor sound quality is the biggest complaint about remote meetings.

Alex Leung, a principal architect at FXCollaborative, explains how they calibrated the classroom’s interiors to create an ideal acoustic environment: A grid of hanging microphones pick up sound throughout the classroom; speakers are placed in strategic spots to amplify presenters; classrooms are soundproofed to mute noise from the busy thoroughfare next to the building. They also studied the interaction of materials in the space — glass, metal, concrete, and flooring — to eliminate echoes.

The school also improved the acoustics in all of the school’s conference rooms too, said Michelle Hall, managing director of the Samberg Institute for Teaching Excellence, a department that offers coaching for Columbia Business School’s faculty. “Those on Zoom always comment about how well they can hear us,” she says. “This means that participants who are remote can feel more connected to what’s happening in the space.”

Offer more spaces for displaying ideas

Columbia’s classrooms have movable whiteboards along the walls that can be used to display multiple screens.

This eschews the one blackboard classroom paradigm, explains Miles Nelligan, an associate principal at Diller Scofidio + Renfro who oversaw the project. He believes that offer more projection space fosters a democratic and dynamic experience. “If people are laying up videos and Zoom windows, they should be given the real estate to array that,” he says.

Simplify the tech

Columbia’s classrooms are equipped with a technology suite intended to encourage active participation among students in various locations.

A high-definition document camera is mounted above the podium for professors to show objects, drawings or documents; students are given tablets installed with the virtual meeting software AirMeet which allows them to share their screens on the projector instantly; a pair of confidence monitors — screens that face the speaker — are affixed to the front row desks so professors can see what’s on the projector without having to turn away.

Ease of use was a key factor in choosing technology, Leung explains.”We didn’t want instructors to have to whip out a manual every time,” he says. Nelligan adds that they mirrored the tech set-up in Columbia’s various lecture halls so presenters don’t have to fiddle with a new configuration each time they go to a new classroom.

Hall doesn’t expect that teachers will use all the new tools at their disposal.”Instructors have to feel confident in the space,” she says. “The hardware and software have to go hand in hand with their pedagogy.”

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