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High-Yield Workplace: How Well-being Drives Learning on the Academic Campus

Image © Gensler

From faculty start-ups to perceptions of Animal House, the discussion at Gensler Chicago’s most recent Dialogues panel brought an interdisciplinary lens to High-Yield Workplace. David Broz and Sarah Bader, both Principals with Gensler and Firm-wide Practice Area leaders in Education + Culture and Health + Wellness led the conversation with:

  • Dr. Cristina Banks, a Senior Lecturer at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces – an incubator for improving employee well-being.
  • David Schonthal, a Clinical Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, a Venture Catalyst at IDEO, Co-Founder and Partner at Fusion Ventures, and Co-Founder of MATTER – a multidisciplinary center for healthcare entrepreneurship.
  • Lisa Currie, the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University whose approach to well-being on campus derives from public health models and is based on a social-ecological framework.

Although this topic was initially posed as one that focused on time spent in the classroom or in the workspace, what emerged was a focus on time spent outside of these spaces – and how that time critically impacts working and learning.

Many of the experiences that shape who people are as individuals—such as how they work well with others and how they ultimately succeed in life—are learned outside of the classroom. The professional world is also shifting; interpersonal skills, ways of problem-solving, and creativity are not only critical but basic, fundamental tools for getting by in life and as part of the work force. Yet, somehow, the academic campus – arguably a center for innovation and thus a crucial source for many of these tools – is lagging behind.

Both David and Lisa noted the pervasive tendency among students to divorce their social existence and co-curricular responsibilities on campus from their academic trajectory. At a developmental stage particularly influenced by social norms and characterized by high-risk behaviors, many students engage in their own version of keeping up with the Joneses: partying heavily and placing enormous stress on their bodies physically while performing at exceptionally high levels academically. Thus, students don’t see their behaviors and their health and well-being as having significant impact on their achievement and success.

Ironically, their decisions surrounding careers and curricula are contrastingly risk-averse, held back by their own fears of failure. Cristina likened today’s college campus to a factory – in part due to the increased emphasis on conformance and assignments that can be graded objectively. As a result, there isn’t value attributed to time spent on experiences that do not directly lead to academic success, and in turn, students are less likely to engage in activities just for the sake of intellectual fulfillment. David observed how infrequently people just get together to have a discourse or work on a project they find interesting, despite the perception that universities are “these playgrounds of multidisciplinary goodness.”

Thought leaders in innovation like Tom Allen and Stephen Johnson have argued that these kinds of opportunities ‘to just get together’ are crucial ingredients for serendipitous interaction and innovative practices. So how do campuses drive a spatial and cultural shift that supports innovation, and how does this shift impact well-being?

First, how can the academic campus better foster innovation? Cristina cited Berkeley’s innovation labs – blank palettes of spaces on campus that provide a place for students, faculty, and staff to come together without a specific objective. She speculated that a structural shift could make these spaces more successful, connecting them more directly to the curriculum and more deeply integrating them across campus. She also emphasized the role of serendipity: in the end, these spaces are still about getting together and the chance to see what happens as a result.

Lisa underscored the innovation that emerges from co-curricular activities. Student organizations and clubs, athletics, and initiatives provide a multitude of opportunities on campus for students to try their hand at something new, build leadership and interpersonal skills, and ultimately leave something of value behind. More importantly, it teaches them to approach innovation holistically – a lesson that will likely prove invaluable beyond their tenure on campus.

David added that a more hands-on approach is also a value-proposition: With so much content and information available online, students want to know that they’re getting their money’s worth. His students arrive at Kellogg with the goal to create something of value by the end of their two years, and he sees his (and the institution’s) role as helping to facilitate that goal. Thus, he sees a shift happening from conveying knowledge to ”how can I make this experience very hands-on.”

Second, how does an environment supportive of innovation impact well-being? The group observed that the university setting offers an ideal place for a process that is purportedly critical to innovation: risk-taking, failure, and recovery afterwards. Presently, however, there’s little precedent for integrating this cycle into academic curricula, and it needs to be cultivated as a way of life among students, faculty, and staff. Cristina speculated that people learn what they’re made of when they endeavor to test themselves, and that campuses must not only create environments for safe risk-taking but also provide support systems to facilitate recovery.

Cultivating the risk-fail-recover process also engenders resilience – the ability to withstand a negative outcome and rise back to a certain level. From stress management to healthy eating, much of Lisa’s work focuses on creating environments that support resilience, to help people anticipate situations that might trigger a negative outcome and build strategies for bouncing forward afterwards. Beyond physical and mental health, resilience is essential for confronting personal and professional challenges and thus is a critical contributor to overall well-being.

We will continue to explore the relationship between resilience and well-being in our third and final event in this series. We hope you can join us for the conversation in June to explore the emerging role of the wellness center on campus.

Held Thursday, March 20th, this event was the second in Gensler Chicago’s three-part Dialogues series on Well-being on the Academic Campus. We invite you to leave your comments and feedback below to continue the conversation. For an attendee’s perspective, please visit this link.

Meghan is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.

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