I recently attended the Design and Management of Learning Environments conference, organised by Workplace Trends and sponsored by Herman Miller. After a great journey to Euston Station, made better by a strong coffee and the latest edition of Facilitate Magazine, I was excited to start the day.
I am very familiar with this area of London (Kings Cross, Great Portland Street, Regents Park) but I am always energised by the noise and movement in this vibrant part of the City. As I walked alongside Regents Park, I noticed that the long line of queuing traffic was silent – as if the vehicles were parked. However, on closer inspection, I found that every car was either electric or hybrid (including Teslas, Porches, BMWs). The effect on the surrounding atmosphere was incredible – calm, a feeling of safety and quiet. I presume this move to more electric vehicles in London is being driven by the Low Emission Zone. I wonder when this will roll out across Manchester? From what I experienced in London, I am a staunch supporter.
The venue for the conference had been changed from the British Library to The Royal College of Physicians. I had no idea what to expect and looked forward to see the building for the first time. It didn’t disappoint. After walking past the beautiful town houses that overlooked Regents Park, I was immediately ‘disrupted’ by an imposing “modernist masterpiece and one of London’s most important post-war buildings”. Wow – this piece of stark architecture, a grade 1 listed building, had been designed by Sir Denys Lasdun to make a statement. I knew it was to be a good day.
The conference started at 9.45am and was opened by Nigel Oseland of Workplace Unlimited. Nigel shared with the audience that there were many people who had also attended the previous year’s conference, testament to the usefulness of the event. There was a focus on making sure delegates built their network and strengthen the learning spaces community. To help this Nigel directed those with mobiles and LinkedIn profiles to enable the ‘Find Nearby’ function and invite colleagues in the auditorium – immediately requests we’re flying around the room. What a fantastic way to start the morning.
Wendy Sammels started the talks and used the case study of the MySurrey Hive (University of Surrey) to explain the benefits of using speed and quick decision making to help deliver transformational projects in very short timescales. The University had contracted Wendy to work full time on a brief to create a next generation one-stop-shop of seamless support for students, no matter their enquiry. The aim was to move away from a fragmented, transactional relationship with customers and ensure services wrapped themselves around the user.
The talk was rooted in customer wellbeing and how to best connect with them. The facility was designed to provide wrap around support. The service model was structured to allow an extra five minutes for staff to ask if a student was e.g. doing ok with their studies. As Wendy stated, students are questioning the value of our organisations. Therefore our services, and the facilities we provide, must fulfil this value proposition.
The Hive is seen as ‘my space’ – a space for everyone. The welcome area is very informal and without a reception desk in sight. There are no seats for staff, a deliberate move to ensure people are ready to engage. The open plan presentation space (with no fixed walls) provides an opportunity for anyone to drop into and learn about someone’s project or work. Colours were chosen to create a sense of calm and biophilia based design approaches were also used. Branding weaves it’s way through all aspects of the space. It defines the user experience, provides a simple, clean and easy environments whilst ensuring consistency at every touch point. The project was completed in six months – a mammoth achievement by anyone’s standards. I asked Wendy how this was possibly, to which Wendy replied:
“Investing money, time and effort will demonstrate the level of seriousness towards achieving a vision. We challenged the status quo, evolved, changed and moved forward. All in all, we just need to get moving; lets do things. We can do it.”
Gitte Andersen shared the approach taken by her company Signal (a consultancy firm which has recently been acquired by the multinational organisation ISS) on how space can be used as a strategic tool to aid organisational performance. Data is used throughout all the team’s projects in order to demonstrate the corporate, people and facility performance of buildings and spaces. This approach chimed with me as this holistic vantage point is what makes Facility Management a key business discipline. Not only does good management of buildings help with the bottom line, it can make processes more effective, have a direct impact on peoples health, drive cultural change and reinforce brand identity. It was interesting how Gitte described that to:
“Fill the gap between decreasing budgets and increasing demand, we need to think differently”
This different way of thinking was captured perfectly when I asked Gitte to explain the aim of one of Signal’s recent publications ‘Facility Management as a Digital Change Agent’. This book aims to encourage proactive use of data within the facility management profession to help us understand the behaviour of our customers before we get to know them.
A list of new demands of the future university campus was presented to the audience. I believe many institutions are already working to meet these demands, particularly 24/7 estates, multifunctional and flexible spaces, campuses with urban facilities and the facilitation of active learning.
As someone who has a great passion towards workspace development and agile working, Gitte reinforced existing research by demonstrating how, on average, real estate is vastly under utilised:
However at Signal they have proven that an organisation can achieve 25% better performance by challenging behaviour around how space is used, without moving any walls! I explained the effect of cultural change on how we use space in a previous blog post (Work) Space + Culture = (Work) Place. The level of detail needed to understand the use of space, and the drivers behind many behaviours, is often not collected. This can be due to limitations of our facilities and the cost of having large assessments (such as ethnographic studies) completed. However why not use the eyes and ears of your facility teams to collect ethnographic and anthropological data on how your space is being used? Take advantage of the mobile devices that many of your customers will have. Seek out this feedback – ask for it and embrace it. At the University of Manchester Library we ask customers to share photographs of their Library experience through the Library Life Pulse survey. These images allow us to walk in the shoes of our customer’s and help us to quickly improve environments. As they say, we are not the customer.
I have to say that one of my favourite presentations was delivered by Ian Stickland of Charcoalblue. Ian is a sound engineer and Charcoalblue (primarily) design theatre auditoriums. At the beginning of the presentation Ian said that he wasn’t in the learning space business, but by the end of Ian’s talk I completely disagreed. Ian took the audience on a journey through the history of auditoria – from the Roman ampitheatres to Victorian music halls. Yet the vision Ian presented was a move towards the future auditoria as a post-digital congregation space. Music halls were an output of the first industrial revolution. I wonder what the output from the fourth industrial revolution will be in relation to our lecture theatres, auditoriums, presentation spaces and communal areas on campus.
Listening to Ian reminded me that it is useful to learn from different specialists, sectors and companies than those in your own network. How can sound engineers, theatre hall designers and logistic managers help us to develop the best spaces and deliver the most world leading services possible?
Here are a few snippets from Ian’s presentation:
The future will be an information age, defined by technology (surely libraries are at the centre of this!)
Create the customer experience through design and technology and make rooms adaptable so that the a unique experience can be curated each time
Give rooms names, not numbers!
The auditorium of the future will embrace ‘live’ but will be liberated by technology (how can this approach shape our group study rooms, silent study spaces, lecture theatres…)
A sofa bed is just a crap sofa and a crap bed
The conference continued to provide fantastic insight to help us shape the way we design and manage our learning environments. As Ian mentioned, the detail we take in our work is crucial to creating the experiences we want for our customers. However it is clear that often these experiences are marred by the fundamentals not being in place:
- Suitable natural and artificial light
- Air quality
- Access to the outdoors
I would argue that these elements do not receive enough attention in most projects. Why is this so considering the clear evidence that they are critical to people having a positive experience? Lucy Plumridge (HLM Architects) directed the room to the WELL v2 pilot benchmarking tool, which builds on from the successful WELL Building Standard. This tool could be particularly helpful for assessing the performance of educational facilities in relation to their effect on people’s health and wellbeing. Hannah Wilson (Liverpool John Moores University) explain her work in the field of student personality and preferred learning environments. This fantastic insight into the effect of human behaviour as a function of the person and environment was based on Kurt Lewin’s equation. This proposes an explanation of what determines behaviour whereby behaviour is a function of the person and their environment:
When we think about our spaces, it is important to bear in mind Hannah’s point that “environments intentionally and unintentionally influence people personalities, which strongly affects introversion and extraversion”. Right now, how could our spaces be positively or negatively affecting our customers? Hannah’s research concluded that students have eight common requirements of space (below). I wonder how our spaces are performing against these eight requirements?
The lunch buffet was simple; high quality and perfectly balanced to help us avoid the familiar afternoon ‘dip’. Having listened to Lucy Plumridge talk about the importance (and often simplicity) of wellbeing, we relaxed in the garden, most people standing up and others resting on the picnic blankets. During a short walk around the College I chatted with members of the grounds keeping staff. They explained to me the history of some of the medicinal plants in the gardens and warned me to stay clear of “the broad leaf plant with the small fruits as it has the potential to make your afternoon somewhat, hazy!”.
Fiona Duggan (FiD), Paul Eaton (Allies and Morrison), Stan Stainer and Jim Wilson (The University of Brighton) and Lauren Bell (Herman Miller), rounded off the conference by sharing their experiences of sustainable development, masterplanning and impacting learning through design.
The skills identified by the World Economic Forum as necessary for future success now include Emotional intelligence and Cognitive Flexibility. As Lauren Bell pointed out, we must think about the design of our facilities on a form and function basis, and also an experiential level:
“What experiences will our customers and students have had in our spaces to help foster the skills they need for the future workforce?”
Stan Stanier and Jim Wilson described the increased satisfaction students had of a study space driven by a completely sustainable design (right down to the use of wood drinks stirrers to create a study desk!). It was mentioned earlier in the conference that students are becoming more inclined to prefer an environment with sustainable and ethical design features. Lauren referred to research by Herman Miller that shows that students are seeking choice in their study spaces and are increasingly interested in using spaces that give people a sense of purpose.
As Fiona Duggan pointed out, it is important to ensure our environments create the opportunities for “human capital to collide”. This statement will resonant with anyone engaged in work to foster collaboration between people (particularly across disciplines and teams). Creating living buildings that are free of unnecessary barriers may encourage this cross disciplinary learning. Biophilic design can break the mould of homogenous, prescriptive design and facilitate more organic behaviour and networking opportunities.
A clear thread ran through the conference; disrupt the status quo. This was perfectly articulated by Fiona Duggan who stated that:
“It’s not about dealing with existing boundaries, its about seeking out new boundaries”
Our post-digital, fourth industrial revolution will likely create an information age where technology and advanced cognitive abilities will define our successes and failures. Libraries are perfectly placed to not only support but also drive this revolution (the work on Open Access alone proves this). But are our spaces prepared for this increasingly rapid progress and are we thinking radically enough about what they need to be in the future?
Thanks for reading,
Library Space Development Manager, The University of Manchester Library