What can be learned from the education sector

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In association withconnection

Mick Jordan Mix Interiors (Chairman) / Tim Jennings TTSP / Duncan Pederby Droitwich.net consultancy / Paul Butterworth KKS / Wayne Taylor Space Zero / Clive Hall BDG workfutures / Steve Wood Scott Brownrigg / Oliver Ronald Connection

In this month’s Round Table event, we’re asking a number of leading specifiers and industry figures to discuss the currently hot topic of what can be learned by the corporate design world from the education sector.

Today, everyone’s a knowledge worker. Students focus, learn, collaborate and socialise naturally – and employees in the corporate world are encouraged to do the same.

The design of both workplaces and educational facilities not only look to foster and encourage the way employees and students communicate, interact and, of course, work, they also look to aid the attraction and retention of employees and students. Expectations continue to increase from employers, employees, educational bodies and students alike. So who’s learning lessons from whom and what is driving these moves forward in both sectors?

We’re sat in the impressive new Clerkenwell home of Connection and begin by asking our panel, a little provocatively, whether the open, collaborative approach of the education sector is merely a trend.

Tim: Yes – next!

Oliver: I would say, look at the classroom. My children are at primary school and are sat in groups at large tables. I don’t believe this is just a fad or a trend – youngsters are now used to success coming from working as a team. There’s often a new phrase or faddish new words added to the lexicon of workplace consulting, but I do believe that collaboration is here to stay.

Steve: I think, as people head out into the workplace, they are now expected to work in a certain style – agile working, team working, working remotely – it makes sense for this to start with education and carry on through to the workplace.

Maybe, for the very first time, however, kids are leaving education and being thrown into a workplace that is less advanced, less open and offers inferior facilities and technology. Surely this is a major issue.

Clive: I think there is much more collaboration now between education and the commercial sector. We have two clients – Sky and EDF Energy – who collaborate heavily with the education sector. We’re not education designers per se but we have done a number of corporate training centres and one of the key remits within that is how they work with the education sector and how our clients have bought into that. This is what we’re seeing a lot of – a real crossover between education and the commercial environment.

Steve: Businesses have started to understand that they might not be getting what they want in terms of skills so quite often they’re now investing in schools or sponsoring schools. Automatically, this can impact on the styles and ways of working they’re expecting.

Wayne: I learn from my children! I look at how they work – and specifically at the technology and the way they use that technology, which is of course a massive driver. I think that if you want them to be productive you have to observe. For me this is about agility, movement, learning to learn – learning in places that don’t pin you down to a table and a chair. That isn’t how kids work nowadays. If you want them to be productive in a work environment then you have to adapt – and agility is one of the key aspects of that.

Paul: We’ve done some recent research at KKS, interviewing 13-19 year olds, so secondary school through to sixth form education. What they’re saying is that the education system now is very flexible, very collaborative and very technology driven. So if those people, coming from school into work environment suddenly don’t have that, then you have a disconnect between the two.

Oliver: I think a really compelling observation is that, for the first time, young people have things to teach their older colleagues. This has never happened before – we may have been able to learn a thing or two from their energy, their outlook on life, their positivity… but frankly, passing on practical skills, specifically regarding technology, is a new phenomenon.

Steve: There are also new jobs and new subjects that have arisen.

Tim: There is still a need for choice though. I think the idea that wonderfully cool and groovy looking interiors are going to attract ALL young people to work in them is fundamentally flawed. Some people – and it doesn’t matter what age you are – prefer structure and prefer a level of formality. If I was young I think I might be in that pot! There are a number major corporates in the City of London who are pressed by the needs to lower their cost base in terms of central London real estate. The danger is that the agile working drive becomes a flag of convenience for those organisations. They can dress up cost-cutting into something that’s wonderful and offers choice. I would suggest that the last thing an awful lot of 20-year olds want to be doing is kicking around at home. The craic of being in a great city and working with other people is a big deal. We’re a social animal and want to collaborate. This, for example, is a much better occasion, being around this table, than if we were in separate video conference rooms.

Steve: I think that’s right. You can’t get away from the fact that there is less space available – and that companies want to spend less per square foot for offices. The area for desking is constantly being suppressed, as is the size of classrooms.

Duncan: Have we gone far enough down that track to find out whether that cost-cutting and that getting more people into the smaller space actually affects the bottom line? Whether these companies are more efficient?

Tim: It affects the capital expenditure. Undoubtedly it makes the reductions they want to make – and undoubtedly they are throwing a lot of investment in the creation of space. There is now a massive amount of competition between financial organisations to compete for the bright young minds – who are creative thinkers and IT proficient. They banks want these young people to join them – not Google or Microsoft. The working environment is more than curtains and cushions and the danger is that people will just see it as that – as window dressing rather than the whole cultural offer. These kids are bright. They’re thinking ‘Alright, I might be sitting in a cool chair, but what’s my career path?’

Steve: When it come to both the workplace and the classroom it is often the desking area or the working area that gets forgotten. You need to develop these spaces as well. You create other areas which are really, really nice, but people are still spending maybe 60% of the time at a desk or a table.

We suggest that he very nature of these zones has changed. Thanks to advances in technology we now talk about desks and tables rather than workstations.

Oliver: The panacea for the more mature generations was the corner office with the burr walnut partner’s desk.

Clive: And that’s still not gone away – a lot of people who progress in their careers sill see this as something very valuable.

Oliver: However, if you put a 25 year old superstar in a corner office, they’d probably run a mile – or sit rocking on the floor in the corner.

Wayne: It’s really interesting – by the time they do become directors, what will the world look like? For me, the key drivers for the new generations will be environmental influences such as the typology of space, social, functional, technological…I’ve also got a buzz about ergonomics – where you now see people sitting with very little support, very little that actually helps you work.

Steve: That’s very true. If you’re going to create breakout zones for your clients you have to ensure that they are ergonomic. That makes you think – where is the workplace? If you’re working from home then that becomes your workplace. You can be sitting on the sofa or at the dining table – which are not particularly supportive, ergonomic spaces.

Clive: The cultural issues here are also very important.  The reality is that a lot of very senior people are very flexible – they work from trains and planes and quite happily sit and work in tiny penned-in areas! Those people who do not work and travel, those that are in the office all day, have a much greater sensitivity to status. I remember, probably 20  years ago now, working with a bank that was making a move to have everybody in open plan. A lot of the middle managers said ‘Well, it’s fine for the directors to say that but we’re the ones who are here all the time!’ I think those pressures still exist today. We’re now seeing a lot more flexibility in and around how spaces relate to one another but I think there is still a cultural issue – how workplaces can affect people.

Wayne: It requires independent learning. I’ve spent a bit of time in Scandinavia looking at how people learn there. They do a learn to learn thing – if you like to work stood at a table, you can, if you like silence, you can get ear defenders – they let you learn how you want to learn. They have that level of agility and flexibility, which allows each individual to learn in the best way. Surely, this is all driven towards commerce and productivity.

Oliver: Do you remember when, 15-20 years ago, call centres would have these awful ‘chill-out’ rooms – and the staff were petrified to use them? The stigma was still that you were seen to not be working. Another big topic is when facilities management teams up with corporate objectives – because there is still a huge disconnect and efficiency is still the driver for the whole agile thing. You can see this because it is being led by local authorities and the need to fit people in.

With time moving on rapidly, and our own need to fit in a couple more questions, we ask our panel what they feel our emerging bright young things expect and want from their workplaces.

Paul: In our survey of 13-19 year olds, 100% said daylight was important to them. 80% said open place was important. 74% said recreation and outdoor space was important, 73% said quiet space was important and 70% said social space was important to them. I think this shows that this is all about space and transparency – it’s about getting the right space for the right people, as it always has been.

Steve: If you look at Google, the impression is that they have the best ways of working, but actually they are quite traditional. They have a 1-to-1 desk ratio. If you break it down, it is all quite standard and traditional, however it is dressed.

Tim: What we’re now starting to hear from clients is ‘We don’t want Google!’

Paul: That’s become the new benchmark! I think that, sometimes, agility is pushed down purely from a cost perspective because there is not necessarily the education there – the understanding of how that space can be used so that you can get the best out of it.

Duncan: I agree. I think it can depend on what is meant by agile. You can either create a space that an be used in different ways or you can create an environment that has different spaces within it. In higher education I’ve seen lots of agile spaces that are never used or they are meant to be agile but it becomes negative because you have to spend time off-task to arrange it to how you want it to be. There is a big drive right now in higher education for spaces to be dual-purpose, where you don’t have to reconstruct a space, it can easily be used in two different ways.

Wayne: To be truly agile a space should be chameleon-like – if it is not used to its fullest extent, then that’s poor design.

Duncan: Looking at the bigger picture, in the States in particular there has been a lot of research done into how successful these new learning environments have been – and the metrics they have used show that they are successful. The metrics they have used are that the students are getting higher grades and also that dropouts have reduced – and that’s a big financial thing.

And we can only give our panelists top grades for their time, efforts and expertise.