October 10, 2019

Five Things Higher Education Can Learn from Corporate Workplace

As designers, we are dedicated to understanding the needs of our markets, from health and wellness to retail. Some markets, like higher education and corporate workplace, relate more closely to each other than others. As designers dedicated to creating environments that support students, we understand there is much we can learn from the trends we’re seeing in workplace design.

In our experience, students and faculty are looking for flexible spaces that reflect an institution’s mission and values. This echoes what employees are looking for in the workplace. Students and faculty desire spaces that support a seamless transition between a variety of teaching and learning modes:  lecture, project/group, solo, discussion, virtual—all of which translate to the modern work environment offering the same choice in work style.

We’ve identified five key areas where workplace design is influencing our approach to learning environments.

1. Open and Flexible

For years, the trend in office design was individual offices or high-walled cubicles. Intentional or not, the walls cut staff off from each other while creating individual spaces for everyone. In the past two decades, we’ve seen the trend tip in the opposite direction—open spaces and lowered walls that allow staff to connect in real-time. Unintended consequences being what they are, we know that each method has its own benefits and disadvantages which has led to this new idea of open and flexible spaces. Flexibility allows workers to choose the environment that best supports the way they work. This can be applied to the two most common space types in higher education, common space, and classrooms.

Understanding flexibility in common space

Flexibility looks different in every space and for every user. We know that a well-designed common area can create buzz. It can encourage, support and accommodate the needs of students. There are key factors in making this a reality. Here’s what we’ve found:

  • Flexible and moveable furniture is vitally important. This simple, yet often overlooked fact, allows students to modify and adjust a space in ways to make it more supportive of their needs.
  • Common spaces encourage students to do group work much like they would collaborate in a professional work environment.
  • A variety of seating choices, including lounge, dining, and high tops, should be offered for optimal flexibility.
  • Common spaces are a hub for gathering and teamwork. They can give students a sense of belonging to a community when the space encourages the coming together of people.

Flexibility in the classroom

Having flexibility in the classroom supports an educator’s desire to be flexible in the way that they teach—traditional classroom, maker space, group work, or integration with technology. Having multiple types of spaces located together can help instructors adjust their lesson plans depending on the needs of students and material being taught. Locating spaces that are innovative, transparent, and flexible in proximity to each other promotes an atmosphere of active learning. By having collaborative spaces, classrooms, and project/maker spaces grouped together, students can learn, ideate, and create while being visible to all.

Students, much like today’s millennials in the workforce, want to work and study anywhere—the park, coffee shop, hallways, quiet zones, noisy spaces, the list goes on.

See it in action: Steelcase IT offices, Ferris State University Recreation Center, and the Hanson Technology Center

Common spaces at Steelcase's IT offices feature different seating areas that support small meetings, individual work, and facilitate impromptu meetings.
The student recreation center at Ferris State University is more than just a workout facility. Common areas provide students opportunities to study, connect and engage.
Classrooms at the Hanson Technology Center are open to the lab spaces beyond. This allows students to easily move between classroom and hands-on learning opportunities.

2. Access to Natural Light (and the Importance of Plants)

You may often hear designers talk about the importance of biophilia in a space. Biophilia refers to human’s inherent desire to seek out a connection to nature. In design, we try to integrate nature using patterns and forms found in the outside world. For the interior environment, this can mean incorporating spaces that are inspirational and restorative. These spaces tend to feature natural light, greenery, living walls, natural textures and materials, and views to nature.

Studies show that access to exterior views and natural light boosts productivity, reduces stress, elevates creativity and clarity, and improves well-being. Much like we design workplaces to allow employees to take advantage of natural light and views, we want to do the same in spaces where students are learning, studying, and gathering to support focus and motivation, along with productivity. Access to natural light is vital for student-centric spaces. Not only does it boost productivity, mood, and efficiency, but creating transparency encourages other students to see what is going on inside of a building promoting an inclusive environment.

See it in action: Barings World Headquarters and the Jack and Mary De Witt Center for Science and Technology

The cafe at financial firm Barings' headquarters in Charlotte, NC, is surrounded by views to uptown and is flooded by natural light throughout the day.

Students study next to a live wall while enjoying three-stories of glass curtain wall which provides natural light and views to outside.
Students study while overlooking an outdoor classroom and pond.

3. Multi-disciplinary Learning

Co-working spaces, where workers from different organizations rent a common space, have changed the way we approach workplace design. We’re just now starting to see the co-working influence come into education. Multi-disciplinary spaces bring together students from different focus areas and programs. Opportunity for integrated project work and the ability to learn from each other is encouraged through co-working spaces.

Today’s higher education experience is a mix of work and social interactions—often happening concurrently—supporting the cultural need for “work/life balance”. We have seen this at Hanson Technology Center where skilled trade and technology/fabrication are housed in one building. This integration fosters the collaboration of students from a broad background and skillset, enforcing the ability to learn in different ways, not just in the classroom.

We find that students are looking for multi-disciplinary learning and thinking, specifically as it relates to science, engineering, and technology. In response, learning facilities are being tasked to support the academics of tomorrow, as well as an entrepreneurial mindset of bringing different thinkers together—co-working helps prepare students for jobs that haven’t even been created yet!

See it in action: AMP Lab and the Launch Factory

Western Michigan University's AMP Lab is not only a learning environment but an open space for students from all disciplines to connect and study before and after classes.
A modern-day co-working space, the Launch Factory features individual offices, conference rooms, open workspace and kitchen amenities.

4. Universal Design's Effect on Diversity and Inclusion

The learners of today are the most diverse that we have seen—a single class could have individuals with sensory, motor, cognitive or learning disabilities; mental health issues; or language barriers—not unlike the modern workplace.

Much like accommodations that would be made in the workplace, today’s classroom is evolving to be more diverse and inclusive as ever. Universal Design reduces any discomfort or segregation that students with a learning, mobility, or visual impairment may encounter from their peers. Spaces are designed for all and no one is singled out. Everyone is different. In order to design spaces that are inclusive, we must consider all of these differences.

“Equitable Learning-Ready Spaces”

Creating spaces that meet the needs of all students—from the left-hander sitting at a right-handed desk, to students in wheelchairs being segregated to the “handicapped” table. Students should have a choice of where they sit and how they learn. Using Universal Design principles, we’re designing equitable, flexible, intuitive, informative, and safe spaces that are both easy to maneuver and accommodating to all. These principals include:

  • Equitable use - The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use - The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive use - Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible information - The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error - The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort - The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use - Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Inclusive design is now being used as a differentiator for work and learning environments to attract and retain students and workers. Universal Design optimizes a space for all users whether in the learning environment or the workplace by incorporating flexibility in the furniture and lighting, being aware of the impact of color and finish material selections, and equitable experiences, Universal Design not only helps those in need but helps all users.

See it in action: Mary Free Bed YMCA, Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University

The Mary Free Bed YMCA was designed around the principles of Universal Design. The large, yellow ramp is the main way members move from the top floor to the lower level.
Syracuse University's Burton Blatt Institute houses office space and student work areas. In accordance with its mission, the office is designed using Universal Design.

5. Technology (It's Kind of Important Nowadays)

Access to technology in the workplace is an ever-growing trend. Not only do we have mobile devices from an employer, but we have personal devices as well. We need to be able to share content quickly and easily throughout the course of a day.

Increasingly, students have this same need. As time goes on, the number of devices owned by students grows—desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Technology is vital to a student’s work and lifestyle and must be available wherever they are. This has created a greater demand on the campus IT infrastructure. Not only is access to devices important but being able to connect virtually is a universal and ever-present need. This will become more important as virtual learning continues to grow and connecting across locations will be necessary to allow interaction between off-campus students and instructors.

The Progressive Companies (hey, that's us!) headquarters features a variety of workspaces that support the type of creative and collaborative work we do each day. This non-reservable space in our cafe area is commonly used for quick or impromptu meetings.
The Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation on the campus of Western Michigan University is a technology-rich environment that supports the work of students in the product design major.

So what does it all mean?

Corporate offices are more nimble than large higher education institutions. The ability to stay up-to-date with trends is easier because they're able to change more quickly and more often. But these five trends aren't going anywhere. Sure, the look and feel of the furniture, fixtures, and accessories might change, but spaces that are flexible, multi-disciplinary, inclusive, diverse, hi-tech, and connected to nature will always be in demand. As a society we are all looking for choice when learning or professionally. No one person is wired the same, so why should our environments be?

Related Insights