What can learning environments teach the working world?

Sophie Grant, Principal Strategy Consultant Design, Workplace strategy

Generation Z, individuals born between 1997 and 2012, officially entered the working world in 2015 and are expected to account for 27% of the global workforce by 2025. This could compound the changes to the world of work and workplace as we know it, as employers seek to attract and retain the next generation of talent.

One thing we know for sure, however, is that the design of the work environment will continue to play a crucial role in this. In fact, recent research suggests that today’s graduates strongly scrutinise potential employers based upon their place of work.

But it would appear many work environments are falling short of Generation Z’s expectations. In 2019, for example, Brandeis University’s International Business School interviewed 54 new graduates on their transition from education into the workplace. In this interview, participants expressed feelings of overwhelm, stress and confusion upon entering their first role in the working world, because their office environment didn’t provide the kind of spaces they needed to thrive.

So what are employers missing when using the workplace as a tool to attract and retain the best new talent? Some have begun to explore the link between work styles found in higher education environments, such as universities, versus those in corporate environments. In doing so, it has been found that taking workplace design cues from higher education environments – or rather, ‘collegiate-inspired design’ – may equate to untapped potential.

‘Collegiate-inspired design’

But, what does this look like in practice? Well, cast your eye around a university campus: a place centered around communication, collaboration and flexibility. These learning environments exist to complement the natural ebb and flow of the day. They do so by supporting different facets of our existence with an inherent understanding that work and life coexist now more than ever. Here are some ideas on how this applies to workplace design:

In-between spaces – On campus, these spaces can take many forms - a more relaxed foyer or atrium-type area, small benches or perches in corridors and hallways, or even a bean bag in the library. These places are multipurpose and flexible to different student needs.

In the workplace, touchdown points offer a multipurpose environment to adjust as needed based on how an individual will be working. Similar in purpose to the above areas a student might find in a learning environment, touchdown spaces relinquish control to the user to work and move fluidly throughout the day as their work activity changes. You’ll find plenty of examples of this in our own work, like in Brainlabs’ workspace.

Learning hubs – Spaces dedicated to learning and education enable students to research, share knowledge and upskill themselves and each other in a setting that levels the playing field. Think lecture halls with interactive technology and libraries with spaces that can facilitate group learning. Both create a culture where users can share valuable information and their professional development and career progression is supported. Preqin’s office is a perfect example of how to prioritise learning without compromise on space and user experience.

Amenities – We already know that Generation Z build a lifestyle from where they spend their time. Internal and external amenities that will enrich life at work will ultimately contribute to team-bonding, company culture and overall wellbeing. Socially-focused spaces and third place amenities like coffee shops, bars and restaurants are powerful magnets to the office that will facilitate connection, whilst providing comfort to employees transitioning to work from education.

Flexibility – As well as providing different types of spaces and various touchdown points in between, employers and team leaders need to empower their employees to use this flexibility to their advantage. Educational bodies don’t hold power over how students work – the responsibility lies with the students themselves to discover and develop their working styles and required environments. Educational campuses do, however, acknowledge the need for and subsequently provide spaces that serve many purposes or that can be adapted to an individual or group’s needs makes travelling between work modes easy.

Maximise exterior environments – University campuses consider the outdoors far more than we may think to when relocating to a new office space or refurbishing an existing one. If you have outdoor space, think about how and where you can implement new areas that can prove useful during the work day, promote socialization, and enrich the everyday experience of your employees. If you don’t have outdoor space, think about what’s nearby and how this serves the wider experience of your team – the working day doesn’t begin and end at the threshold of your building.

Wellbeing – Of course, wellbeing needs to be woven throughout your design structure from the bottom up. Generation Z have made a name for themselves through their passion for social issues like sustainability and their commitment to leading healthier, happier lives. Threading wellbeing throughout your workspace, as you would do with your business’ ESG strategy, proves your dedication to doing good by your people, your community and the planet.

So, what can we take away?

Whilst ‘collegiate-inspired’ design is just one approach to preparing the workplace for future generations, it’s clear that its offers a fresh perspective on modern working environments and how they could serve their users. And this isn’t to say that collegiate design elements will work for everyone, but could be part of the solution for businesses looking to attract young talent. What’s most important to take away is that variety of space is key – a holistic workspace and work experience is vital to adequately supporting the needs of individuals of different ages, backgrounds, abilities and working requirements.

Generation Z are valuable to the workplace. They’re helping to shift mindsets and attitudes towards working styles, and are encouraging employers to ask what the purpose of the office really is. In a following series of work, we’ll be continuing to explore how the world that Generation Z has grown up in has altered their perspective on the future of work. Subscribe to our newsletter here to stay up-to-date.

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