Back to School: What Campuses Can Teach Us About Workplaces
Maddy Burke-Vigeland in Collaboration, Focus Work, Learning, Workplace Design

Photos courtesy of Gensler

A hyper business climate, recession realities, and an increasingly global stage are only a few criteria affecting the ethos of the workplace. Add specific 21st century challenges—such as new technologies and increased mobility—and “innovation” quickly becomes a survival response. So how do business leaders create work environments that also function as centers of innovation?

I believe the answer is an “office university” of sorts. Learning at work needs to be at the forefront of the everyday. Far too many teachable moments that can result in informal and incidental learning and serendipitous innovation are lost on the office floor in the name of time and money. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I started thinking about the critical intersection of learning and work through an entirely unrelated research project that looked at how and where students study on campus and whether their school spaces are designed to support preferred methods of learning. That information is rich for someone like me, a designer of education and cultural environments.

It’s a good model for business leaders too. What the students told us aligns with workplace research Gensler has undertaken and with recent writings on the need for quiet time and space. The needs of the twentysomethings are not far off from the needs of the fiftysomethings. Here are three key takeaways from the students, all of which have implications for a workplace that fosters innovation.

Face time

College students are asking for more from their classroom experience. Gensler’s research uncovered strong dissatisfaction with the lecture format. Students want in-person time to be interactive with their teachers and fellow students and don’t believe current classrooms support this. As these students quickly become the new crop of office workers, they will likely want similar engagement in the office.

Workplaces designed to support interaction and ad hoc learning are, and will increasingly be, the most successful. Gensler’s new L.A. office was designed with this as a top priority. Thirty-three unique breakout spaces give individuals and teams a range of choices—and opportunities—for casual exchanges that can result in new ideas. For mobile employees, these spaces also serve as temporary homes and offer enticing settings that aim to make the trip to the office productive and worthwhile. This is critical as companies embrace mobility to differing degrees and leading companies like IBM and Aetna Inc. opt for nothing short of radical mobility.

Tech saturation

When asked what study tools they use most on campus, students surprisingly ranked pen and paper first. They did praise the functionality and technological prowess of classrooms, but less than one-third said those same classrooms inspire them. The bottom line: Even these techno-geeks need tangible connections to their work, found in this case in the very human act of writing/sketching/concepting.

An effective workplace/learning place blends the “real” and “virtual” into one seamless experience. The technology has to be there but should not replace or undermine more tactile expression and the tools that make it possible, such as pen and paper and inherently “hackable” whiteboards and tack walls. At TM Advertising in Dallas, the elliptically shaped building core (essentially a circulation space) does double duty as a meandering blank canvas for expression and collaboration: a pin-up wall, a whiteboard, a bike track. Employees have been known to go for a spin around the oval wall in the interest of a healthy break. And that kind of relaxation can help kick-start ideas.

Solitude is essential

In spite of their social nature, the next generation needs alone time to get work done. More than 70 percent of the college students we surveyed prefer to work alone—and, indeed, students reported spending almost half of their on-campus time “studying-working alone.” But less than one-third said campus spaces supported their activities effectively. Specifically, the library—students' preferred focus space—is not delivering. And this parallels Gensler research on the workplace. Employees rated “focus work” as the most critical work activity, but the data showed it to be the least-supported activity in the office. Effective offices acknowledge that everyone—not just older workers and introverts—needs to be alone some of the time. A studied mix of focus, collaborative, and social spaces, like the one at the Nokia Blue offices in London, is essential.

As each new generation transitions from student to worker, this shift will continue to have a profound effect on shaping the culture—and design—of the workplace. For me, this continuous cycle acts as a reminder that the artificial boundary between work and learning needs to disappear and that one nourishes the other. We must remember that it is this synergy that leads to new ideas.

Maddy Burke-Vigeland is an Architect and Principal who leads Gensler’s Education and Culture Practice Area. Maddy directs the strategic vision for Gensler’s education design network, engaging institutions in creating learning environments for the 21st century. Contact her at
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (
See website for complete article licensing information.