Transforming workspaces

Keri Beckingham looks at the ways in which universities are using spatial design to boost staff wellbeing

Did you know that in today’s workplaces, on average only 44% of desk space is occupied, or that at any one time only 67% of staff are observed on site? These statistics from Spacelab, a leading architecture and design firm, suggest that office and administrative spaces are not being used effectively, an area where universities are also falling short. Here, we explore whether spatial design can develop an institution’s office and administrative space, and therefore improve the motivation and productivity of staff as a result. 

The importance of spatial design in non-teaching spaces

Nathan Lonsdale is a Partner at Spacelab and has worked with several UK universities to reconfigure their office spaces. He believes spatial design can help universities to operate more effectively, and says: “First and foremost, in our experience universities like to be called organisations, however, they are definitely more like businesses because they need to make money, function and collaborate – a mindset change needs to take place, and interior architecture can help to start break down those barriers.

“We are great believers that if you get the heart of the business right, it will naturally start to spread through the workplace into the product. The design is the feeling, the emotion on top of this – it’s important for universities to know what they want to create.” 

Graeme Scott is Managing Director of Constellations, a company that designs and installs workspaces for clients in the education sector. He believes spatial design is important for allowing staff to work more flexibly, and says: “Designing work environments with people in mind is fundamental. As non-teaching employees may spend the majority of their working day in their office, it is essential that new spaces are considered beyond the parameters of simple space planning.

“This has seen the introduction of new products tailored to the individual preferences of organisations and their employees. For example, our height-adjustable desks, which allow employees to move from a sit to stand working position, have seen a jump in orders over the past 12 months as university procurement teams see the benefit of creating flexible environments and as ‘hot-desking’ and the use of laptops and tablets become more popular too.” 

Another key reason for a university to review the spatial design of their non-teaching spaces is to improve the motivation of their staff. Nick Conway is Director at ITC Concepts, a construction company who recently worked with UCL to refurbish their SU and create office space for their support services. 

He says: “Any space, whether for teaching, socialising or administration, can impact on the creativity and the frame of mind of those who use it. As universities want their staff to be working to the best of their abilities, it is always worth investing in non-teaching spaces so that they feel motivated, relaxed and ready to achieve.

“As a construction company, this is something we bear in mind, whether it’s developing new social and leisure facilities or refurbishing a whole faculty’s administrative and teaching spaces.”

Improving wellbeing, performance and working relationships 

When working with universities, Spacelab aim to provide lots of different types of spaces which are tailored to the different moods of staff. As Nathan Lonsdale says: “We create several options depending on whether someone wants to get their head down and focus in a quiet space, or work collaboratively with others – we help to build a community. 

“We think it’s really important to provide space that allows everyone to tailor their activity. Rather than us dictate how someone works, there is flexibility which allows them to tailor their workspace themselves which is really empowering.” 

 Graeme Scott agrees that it’s important for universities to offer their staff a range of working space options, based on the specific needs of different individuals and teams. He adds: “Spatial design can help to ensure that working environments are able to accommodate the different working styles and functions of a team effectively. We work with clients to understand the tasks their teams will perform and look to design flexible spaces that facilitate those.

“Introducing areas for collaborative working such as staff break-out spaces, as well as areas for individual working and on-to-one meeting spaces helps to ensure that employees are able to work effectively and keep disruption for others in the environment to a minimum, aiding productivity.” 

 Nick Conway also believes that spaces should reflect those who work in them, and comments:

 “Fit out and refurbishment projects are central to the creation of positive and productive environments for staff. Being in a space which is inspiring, comfortable and creatively designed is conducive to feeling inspired, relaxed and happy. We can see universities recognising this through greater investment in spaces for staff.”

Developments over the last 12 months 

What changes in spatial design have our experts seen in universities over the last year? Graeme Scott says he has seen a focus on effectively utilising existing spaces through the use of furniture, and comments: “We have seen a rise in demand for quality furniture that is durable but also very flexible in its use. For example, there has been more demand for our leg-extension packs that allow our office desk layouts to be re-configured – enabling the arrangement to adapt as working environments and working teams develop and change.

“We have also seen a rise in demand for individual private storage space in office environments. This led to the development, in conjunction with Nottingham Trent University, of our new locker units that provide secure storage for staff. These lockers are designed to work with our modular storage systems enabling the lockers to be part of the interior design.” 

Adding to this, Nathan Lonsdale says that he has seen an increase in the creation of agile workspaces, where not every member of non-teaching staff will have an allocated desk. He adds: “Traditionally universities have non-teaching spaces set up in separate silos or offices for different departments. The downside is that here, staff are not working together, whereas they should be helping the university to function better. 

“By getting staff out of their offices, bringing them together and allowing them to move more freely within the workspace, it will encourage a change in staff behaviour which will result in a more effective working environment.” 

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