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Is Back-to-School the Future of Work Design?

June 29, 2018
  • Workplace

If you headed to a college campus today, what would you expect to see? You’re probably conjuring up visions of football tailgates, house parties and students walking the campus staring at their iPhones. Let’s get back to why students are really there, to further their education and hone their skills for the workplace.

How and where are they studying? Park benches, cafes, libraries, common areas… the list of spaces they use and the ways they complete work and study is endless.

Think about today’s average workplace. How many different spaces are available for employees to complete tasks? An individual desk and a few conference rooms are pretty standard. This is a problem!

In today’s competitive marketplace, the desire and need to recruit and retain young, talented employees is at an all-time high and organizations are heading to college campuses to recruit and hire the best and the brightest.

While organizations may be siphoning off the talent of higher education, they are failing to emulate the same or similar environments students have become so accustomed to working in for the past four to six years.

This disconnect between the learning styles and spaces in which young people are being educated, as compared to the work style and spaces in which they are expected to work is leading to recently hired grads that are lost in transition, or rather dissatisfied, disengaged employees.

In a previous blog, I discussed a series of campus tours KI conducted with business leaders who recruit on college campuses. I asked that they observe the learning and work styles of students. Across all tours, seven similarities around student work habits emerged, but just as insightful was the data we gathered from interviewing the corporations banking on recruiting and retaining recent college grads.

  1. 78% of corporations interviewed indicated there were no similarities in how college students achieved their daily tasks versus how recently hired graduates work in their respective companies.
  2. 91% of clients interviewed indicated there were no similarities in the students’ work styles on campus versus the work styles recently hired graduates use in their respective companies.
  3. And most telling… 90% of corporations have tried to integrate specific spaces that they believe mimic a collegiate environment.

Despite this realization, NONE of the companies had formally studied physical collegiate learning environments. Many corporations found that these "collegiate" spaces were hardly used because they weren’t specified holistically like collegiate learning environments.

Collegiate Design White Paper-9_crop.png

This final metric not only highlights an important disconnect but also signals two glaring problems that stem from traditional workplace design.

  1. Organizations often try to “force feed” their ideas of what collegiate design is, creating various third space settings, contrived lounge configurations and multi-purpose spaces in hopes that employees will use them. But without the support and integration of surrounding concepts, such as change management, success may be elusive.
  2. Most employees still have their own personal workspaces provided by their employers (cubes, desks) and are still expected to occupy them. Combine this with the general rule that company cultures do not typically promote an agile workforce and it’s easy to see why such “collegiate” spaces go unused.

So, while companies are claiming to use design cues from higher education to create new work spaces, they are not actually yielding the benefits of increased productivity, efficiency and engagement that these spaces can manifest.

How do we change this and what is the link between corporate design trends and workplace design?

In a report done by IFMA regarding workplace design, three trends stood out as clear “connectors” between collegiate and workplace design.

  1. Increased adoption of Distributed Work Strategies - Classified as a way of distributing work based on tasks and responsibilities which is often simply defined as a “work anywhere, work anytime” policy. In the workplace this means accommodating a variety of work styles and tasks—heads-down, focused work, collaboration, offsite, mobile, etc.

    Thinking about this strategy in the context of today’s higher education students, it is evident that they have “worked” (studied, produced) in a “distributed” manner for years. It’s safe to assume Higher Ed established this anywhere/anytime design trend long before the workforce created the distributed work strategy.                                 
  2. Less for me, more for my team. The need for individual work spaces has diminished in corporate environments, while the need for more shared spaces has multiplied. Companies are allocating more square footage for collaborative, conference, support and amenity spaces. The premise that more shared space is required for everyone, while less is needed for the individual has long been a hallmark of university planning. Students and even faculty have limited individual space so that the bulk of campus space is shared space.                                   
  3. A higher degree of worker choice and control improves results. There is a corporate notion that’s becoming prevalent in many industries. By allowing workers to have a higher degree of choice with regard to their workplace, greater productivity will result.

The parallel of this flexibility trend to collegiate design demonstrates that students always choose how they complete assignments and where they will be most productive. They maintain control of time and space and produce the necessary results to complete tasks. While workplaces have only recently placed more emphasis on this approach, students have long been accustomed to it.

If you’d like to learn more, check out AECOM and KI’s white paper, “Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design”.

View Research

by Jonathan Webb  Director of Workplace & Healthcare Markets

Jonathan Webb leads KI’s strategic business units for workplace/private sector and healthcare. Jonathan studies workplace and healthcare trends, uncovers product gaps, and develops solutions with the KI team. Jonathan takes part in advanced workplace and corporate training strategies and documents his findings through white papers, articles, and other publications. His recent publications, Understanding Active Design: The Rise of Human Sustainability and Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design, have put Jonathan in the media spotlight. Partnering with thought leaders like AECOM, his publications cover diverse subjects including sit/stand benefits, designing training environments, and defining work styles. Jonathan holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh School of Business and is a LEED-accredited professional.


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