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Why Offices Should be Designed Like Collegiate Spaces

A group of people in an office.

Ever find yourself sitting at your cubicle, thinking back wistfully to your college days, perhaps even wishing you could spend a carefree moment with your feet propped up on your desk? Perhaps you’ve been imagining the afternoon coffee breaks on the campus green, rushing to your favorite studying nook at the library, or even knowing just when the evening sun would glint into your dorm room and lead you to just the right mood to get you motivated to finish your term paper.

You may not have realized it when you started your career, but the work habits you became accustomed to while you were in college may have made your transition to your “traditional” office more difficult. What was it about the collegiate environment that made you most productive? 

That yearning you have for your workplace to feel more like college may not just be in your head. Jonathan Webb, office design expert at global manufacturer Ki Furniture explores this very topic in Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design, a study he co-authored with Brett Shwery, Senior Vice President/Director of Strategic Accounts and Consulting at HOK. Following their hunch that millennials seek workplaces that remind them of college, Mr. Webb and Mr. Shwery studied and compared work styles found in higher education versus corporate environments.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Webb and learn more about the factors that make collegiate design more inviting in our current workspaces. Below, you’ll discover the inspiration for the study, as well as tips to help you more productive in your current workspace.

Thank you for speaking with me today, Jonathan! I’m interested to know about the inspiration for your study. What got you interested in this topic?

What actually happened was that while I was in LA, I was speaking with another gentleman named Brett Shwery in the design world. He was designing a business school and his client at the university wanted a building on the campus to be more like a corporate building.

We were laughing about it because we see what typical corporations look like and... there aren’t many that you would want to model a college building after. They’re just not aesthetically pleasing. Our conversation turned 180 degrees - organizations were trying so hard to attract new talent and Gen Y makes up the highest percentage of the workforce. Maybe we need to step outside the box and have separate criteria for how a corporation should look and feel.

That’s how we decided that if you’re trying to attract young talent, it might make sense to study where they spent the last four years of their lives. Our original premise was that workplaces should take their cues from collegiate environments. We interviewed all sorts of companies and industries- manufacturing, software, government, and education. We spoke to a number of people from different companies and departments.

How did you identify that there was a need for organizations to start paying more attention to differences in workspaces preferred by millennials and recent graduates?

I think when organizations are redesigning a space or constructing a new space, they want the space to look fresh and cool. We don’t have much to go on beyond that desire they have for it to be “something the other companies (in my industry) aren’t doing”.

So we’re really exploring not just the environments that students are working in but how they are working as well. When you think about it, the term “campus” has become a very ubiquitous term, particularly among our clients. Every organization wants to call their place a “campus”; you almost start to wonder if it’s almost Freudian that people are using the term “campus”.

Whether it’s a university or Microsoft, the buildings would look the same, but when you get inside the buildings and study how employees work as opposed to how students work, learn, and collaborate, it’s so different. 

That’s how we realized there’s this huge disconnect in those environments. Eighty-two percent of the companies we spoke with told us that newly-hired grads feel lost in the workplace. They don’t have spaces that respond to their needs or the work styles they’ve been working in. As a student, you’d go to a classroom and sit where you wanted to, the syllabus told you what was expected of you and as long as you got your work done by such and such a date, it was fine.

The first day at your job is different. (Your managers) tell you where you’re going to sit, who you will work with, when to do it- usually 9 to 5- and your deadlines. And then we wonder why people freak out and feel lost.

It has to do with the physical space and the work styles that are expected by newly-hired graduates. Colleges cater to a very distributed work style- you can make use of a grassy knoll, common areas, cafe, etc. Come back to where employees work- you are expected to sit in one place, and it’s tough. That’s what we try to communicate with our clients, you have to be able to provide the right workspaces for the different mix of work styles and make it accommodating so that young people to have that mobility and flexibility.

How does an open layout demonstrate an organization’s “openness”? What should managers who want to demonstrate their openness do when thinking about redesigning office workspaces?

One of the things we’ve been doing over the last year, year and a half, has been to take our clients back to college. It’s actually pretty amazing how many have not been on a college campus in decades. The first we did was at Emory University, which is a beautiful campus. A couple of clients and the VP of Facilities at a major manufacturer had not been on a college campus in 25 years. He (VP of Facilities) went through and he’s taking pics of students- it was during finals so hey were in real focus mode- sitting on staircases and studying.

Colleges cater to a very distributed work style- you can make use of a grassy knoll, common areas, cafe, etc. Come back to where employees work- you are expected to sit in one place, and it’s tough.

He was taking pictures of a student using four pieces of technology at the same time. He turned to his coworker and he said, “no wonder we can’t get anybody to work for us.” That was a big a-ha moment for Brett and me, a validation moment- this is a really legitimate talking point for organizations. When I went down to our client’s new building in Wichita, they did surveys with all their young employees and wanted their opinions on what they liked and didn’t like about their workplace, which built upon our research.

How would you recommend a job seeker find organizations that embrace an open layout? How do they research this before they even have an interview?

One of the things we found out is 90% of the companies we spoke with actively recruit at universities, but almost all of them never asked a grad how they liked to work. If they are not going to change their mindset it’s really important that college students act proactively- go into career fairs and ask the right questions, and make a point to ask the recruiter to describe the workplace environment.

Make sure it matches what your expectations are. You can look at the career section of the organization’s website and see pictures of their workspaces (and they are really proud of their workspaces). The other thing to do, if you are in a community where you can reach out to individuals you know, is to ask them to describe their workplace environment so you know what to expect. It’s a great way to get honest feedback. Even when you are on an interview, ask the people who already work there (what they like about their work station and productivity spaces).

Let’s say an employee likes an open concept office but is confined to a typical cubicle- what could they do to adjust their workspace and make it more conducive to their productivity?

I think if you’re in that situation and if you can figure out a way to work in other places within or outside the building, take the opportunity to do that. You can forward your calls to your cell phone, use a laptop- take any opportunity to get up to a soft seating area or unused conference room, even the lobby. If you can do that and feel comfortable in that environment, even your cafeteria, I would say go ahead and do it. Try to take advantage of as much space as you have. More old-fashioned organizations might not even realize that they have an issue with their workplace but if they see younger people taking advantage of every office space they can and work in groups and have physical connectivity with each other, I think that could be a good thing. About 50% have said that recent graduates tried to make honest attempts to replicate collegiate workspaces.

What are some benefits employees can expect if their office adopts an open layout?

1) A heightened level of engagement between employees. The ability to see somebody and ask them a question b/c you actually have some sort of physical connectivity and ability to see and hear them.

Engagement is a big deal these days. About 70% of employees are disengaged- not being able to hold employees accountable or able to maximize effectiveness or consistency.

2) Increase communication between silos, not just within silos; have people in different areas of the organization see and talk to each other, even if it’s on a social level in the lunchroom. Having open spaces means anyone can use them. There are endless companies where employees have worked there for years and don’t know each other.

What are the personality types that thrive in an open/collegiate office? Which might find the open concept office a difficult place to work?

When we looked at the data we didn’t break apart by generation but I will tell you that Gen Y’s ability to work in an open environment is much, much greater than the baby boomer generation. The Gen Xers fall in the middle- they covet more of a structured office but at times just want to be in a free-range space.

I hate to make everything generational but one reason companies have been struggling with layout is due to the generational differences. Mahogany row, private offices- that’s the baby boomers, and they were okay with that.

It’s a big deal, it also can be expensive for companies to adapt. When thinking about attraction and retention of replacing a good employee, if the older generation is still in charge and unable to adapt they will have a hard time retaining talent. Boeing was a good example of that in the mid-2000s- one in five engineering grads said that Boeing was where they wanted to work, but the turnover among recent grads in three years was 40%.

Why do you think employers don’t ask potential hires how they do their most productive work- whether sitting, standing, or lying down?

There’s not a single employer who won’t say they value their employees or consider them their most important asset but there are still many employers that suggest the physical office environment is not important to the long term health of the organization. Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s hard to get some people to change their stripes. I think it’s cultural.

How would you advise an employee to approach the topic (of changing a traditional workspace to a more collegiate layout) to their manager?

The easiest, most overarching statement if you think about it from an overall strategy is that organizations should do whatever they can to increase the amount of (access to) daylight. It’s amazing, you go into these beautiful buildings with all this glass but the people who work in them don’t have access to the areas with natural light. Start working in the areas that have the most daylight.

Thank you so much for all your insights, Jonathan! 

By Victoria Crispo

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