Hard at work in higher education

Keri Beckingham explores how spatial layout, furniture configuration and interior design can impact on the working environments of a university campus

From the back office to the departmental staff rooms and administration areas, it is a university’s working environments that play a vital role in its day-to-day operations. But how can spatial design help to maximise these spaces, improve the motivation and productivity of staff and create opportunities for collaboration?

Making the most of spaces

Over the last academic year Madelyn Hankins, General Manager at furniture solutions provider Steelcase Education, has seen that universities are starting to rethink what their office spaces look like. She said: “Forward-thinking universities are rethinking these spaces by considering a mix of private offices and shared spaces that foster collaboration across departments while still allowing for privacy when needed.”

Nathan Lonsdale is a Partner at Spacelab, a leading architecture and design firm. He believes that it’s important for universities to make the most of the space they have available when considering how to maximise their non-teaching environments, and that they should look to move away from a structure where different departments work in isolation. He said: “The bringing together of non-teaching functions can really help to bring down barriers. Space is so powerful and people forget what it can do for them. For universities it doesn’t mean having to reinvent the wheel, it’s just about bringing everyone together to create one community instead.”

ABOVE: The University of London –  image courtesy of Jefferson Smith.

~The importance of interior design

Interior design involves much more than just looking at connected furniture and lighting specifications – it’s all about considering how the space will be used as a whole. As Seton Wakenshaw, Interior Design Programme Leader at Northumbria University, said: “It also considers the service that is offered and takes place in these spaces.

“Successful spaces recognise the functionality required but also how the user can have a better experience than they may imagine having.”

Nick Conway is Managing Director of ITC, a construction company which has recently worked with UCL, London Metropolitan University, Surrey University and Kingston University. He thinks that interior design can also positively impact the perceptions that staff and students have about a particular institution, and said: “For better or worse, we navigate society by making a series of conscious and subconscious judgements on the surrounding environment. Our attitude and behaviour is modified based on our perception of the built environment around us, and each type of space contributes to our impressions and experience.

“Put simply: non-teaching spaces contribute significantly to the overall atmosphere of a university.”

Benefits for wellbeing, performance and working relationships

Improving the spatial design of non-teaching spaces can also benefit the wellbeing, performance and working relationships of university staff. As Nick Conway explained: “Spatial design has a significant impact on mood and productivity. Ninety per cent of our lives are spent indoors, and a majority of our day at work, so it’s important to get it right.”

In addition, Nathan Lonsdale thinks that spatial design can help to create more of a community. He added: “It’s all about getting people to work together more effectively, and how you create spaces to make connections and help people get to know each other better.

“Quite often offices can segregate people, and so spatial design can help people to feel part of something, which is good for mental wellbeing. From a physical point of view it can also offer more opportunity for exercise as it gets people walking to see their colleagues rather than just relying on communication by email or phone.”

Madelyn Hankins also believes that universities should offer their staff a mixture of workspaces in order to maximise their productivity, collaboration and creativity. She commented: “Spatial design considerations including lighting, access to daylight through windows, and access to storage, can have an impact on wellbeing and performance.

“Balancing private spaces with shared spaces can enhance collaboration and working relationships between multi-disciplinary university staff.”

ABOVE: The University of London –  image courtesy of Jefferson Smith.

Using the skills and experience of staff

When it comes to universities looking at the ways that spatial design can improve their administrative spaces, it is important that they consult staff to ensure the space meets their needs best. Seton Wakenshaw believes that it is also beneficial to utilise the skills and experience of any interior design teaching staff in order make the project as effective as possible, and said: “The role of the academic is multi-faceted and the areas we work in must reflect the requirements of the job, whether that be quiet areas for research – or not so quiet depending on the research.

“It is therefore important that interior design staff are consulted on any changes or opportunities within the workplace as they have both practical experience and industry knowledge to help enable positive change.”

Case study 1

The University of Northampton

The University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus is opening for students in September, with staff moving in already. The development has merged their two existing campuses into one and has condensed 61 buildings into four, resulting in much larger academic buildings, as well as developing a new student village, sports and leisure facilities.

Jane Bunce is the Director of Student and Academic Services and Waterside Academic Project Manager at The University of Northampton. Discussing the project further and how they took spatial design of non-teaching spaces into consideration, she said: “Our campus development has been designed to create a more collaborative, inclusive campus, shared by staff and students, while also using the spaces we have more efficiently.

“For example, staff might start the day in a vibrant shared space while working with colleagues from other faculties or departments, leaving this for a teaching space later in the day to teach, then spending the rest of that day in another space altogether, to focus on individual work.

“Our open-plan office spaces have plenty of room desks. We have created different working spaces, where staff can go to work quietly or silently on research activities, or more dynamically with others. Staff can find the space that suits them best for the task that they’re undertaking. Everything at Waterside has been designed to be as flexible as possible, with furniture that can move and change depending on the needs of staff.

“I think that by being closer together in one area, rather than having departments in many different buildings, staff will have the opportunity to meet people from different departments more easily and resolve issues more smoothly. In addition, for academic staff, we believe it will aid collaborative working and research projects, and help to build a sense of community – everyone working together for the same end goal.”

Case study 2

The University of London

The University of London were looking to re-envisage the use of space at their home in the historic grade-II listed Senate House, and turned to Spacelab to carry out an in-depth workplace consultancy and formulate the design strategy. The brief was to consolidate non-teaching teams from across the organisation into one space within the lower ground floor – an under-utilised space that was previously used for storage.

The key objective was to create a future-proof space that facilitates ‘activity-based working’ (ABW), whilst also increasing productivity, knowledge transfer and collaboration across and within teams. ABW is the notion that staff will work in a location that suits the needs of the task. This means that colleagues were encouraged to use a variety of spaces including desks, project spaces, quiet workspaces and collaboration spaces.

The extensive workplace consultancy process helped identify exactly what the users’ needs were and how to incorporate them into the design. Using Spacelab’s specialist ‘heat mapping’ software they analysed the spatial qualities of the lower ground floor, testing how various spatial interventions could help improve the integrity and connectivity across the floor. Spaces were measured on their ‘visible’ connectivity to one another, identifying key areas of integration to fully harness the potential of the space.

Based on the data gathered through the workplace consultancy process, Spacelab recommended that the University move to a more efficient agile way of working, shifting the focus away from ‘the desk’. By moving to a ratio of 1.3 workpoints per person and providing a range of alternative work settings, this allowed for greater collaboration among and between teams, whilst also creating a more efficient office space.