Beyond the Smell of Coffee: Engaging Workers through Dynamic Office  

Walk into a Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis, and there is more going on than just good coffee – a group of people meeting, a few professionals and students working on their laptops, and a couple of tables of two people discussing business and life.

Make no mistake, the coffee is good. So is the atmosphere, though – friendly, rustic, comfortable. And, what Spyhouse creates in its settings, it receives in the energy these people bring. It becomes more than a coffee shop; it becomes a hub of work, study, and activity.

And there’s the competition for most offices today. In what someone called “the modern workplace in a borderless world,” today’s employees are looking for more than office amenities. They are looking to be engaged in their work in the same way they are engaged in life. Offices aren’t disadvantaged, though, in this new working world. It just takes seeing space in a new light.

Breaking the Breakroom

Engage. It’s a word that previous offices didn’t include as a top priority. Productivity? Yes. Efficiency? Of course. Engagement?

Defined as “the extent to which employees commit to something or someone in their organization, how hard they work, how long they state as a result of that commitment,” employee engagement is receiving more attention. Although some see it as a retention strategy, it has a direct impact on productivity and innovation.

Especially in a mobile world, a significant reason employees come into the office at all is for interaction, whether formal or informal. Even in social conversations, employees are sharing ideas that can spur creativity and lead to discoveries.

Look around the office and ask, “Where is the energy center? Where do people congregate, socialize, and share?”

The challenge for many offices is that the space that could most accommodate such interaction often is overlooked, such as a break room. Often the place where people go to get away, or the only place in the office where people can casually talk innovation and creativity, such rooms can be the least attractive part of the office – the place where the vending machine lives with some non-descript tables, chairs, and microwave. Hardly inviting even for a break, it’s less inviting as a place to work, talk, or relax, sending many employees out of the office at times when they could connect with colleagues.

A Hub for Activity

When employees leave the office to work, they take with them more than their laptops. They take institutional knowledge. They take mentoring opportunities. They take the energy and culture that makes most businesses competitive and unique. Employees may be equally as productive at the coffee shop as at their desk, but offices lose something when these employees take their skills out of the office.

Fostering an environment for interaction is good for business, and part of that is having a place for employees to interact. By creating a work cafe or a central hub in the office, businesses create the in-person opportunities for informal interactions that lead to collaborative and trustworthy relationships.

As research has indicated, technology is unable to replicate such casual interactions, whether social or business. Through face-to-face communication, the research found, team cohesion is enhanced and group performance increases. By seeing space as a tool to shape these personal and natural interactions, offices can improve the productivity and innovation across the company.

Brewing Up Culture

It’s been said in many iterations: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As Anytime Fitness’ CEO Chuck Runyon explains, it is what creates team cohesion, which improves performance. It also leads to tattoos of the company’s logo…by customers as well as employees. Few companies can claim such brand loyalty.

Culture goes beyond branding, though. Culture inspires. It energizes. It motivates. Culture is what brings many employees into the office, as the office is no longer the only place where individual work can be done. Employees today, especially new recruits, are looking for more than a desk and compensation. They want connection to leadership, connection to mentoring opportunities, and connection to mission.

This is where space can be the catalyst for building and enhancing culture. Work cafes, collaboration hubs, work islands, and even work benches eliminate walls that can isolate individuals at a desk and open spaces for more interactions that are necessary for building social skills needed for effective teamwork. Such spaces also allow for formal and informal learning opportunities, connecting seasoned employees with new recruits. Most importantly, it engages employees, building trust, awareness, and a shared sense of purpose.

Not everyone who walks into a coffee shop with a laptop is looking for a discussion, but they are looking to work in a place where they can see as well as be seen. They are looking to be energized by something more than caffeine. By seeing their own space through this lens, companies create face-time opportunities that build energy and culture in the workplace and makes the office an attractive space where people want to work.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Business Journal’s How-To section of its newspapers’ website in November 2016 as part of an occasional series about design written by Jennifer Stukenberg.

Harnessing Power of Visible Learning: A Better Classroom Design

How does someone learn to juggle? While many would answer with “practice,” others may describe the perfect technique.

What if the answer is really, “By witnessing and experiencing failure?”

In education, students many times are taught subjects through repetition and are tested on their knowledge. We often times measure learning by how well students perform on those tests. What the tests don’t measure is HOW these students are learning – a much different question than how well have they learned. If learning is experience driven, how do we teach others how to learn?

John Hattie would answer “through visible learning.”  A leading education expert and author of Visible Learning into Action, Hattie describes the concept of “visible learning” as “a new understanding of the enhanced role of teachers in which teachers are most successful when they become evaluators of their own teaching…The art of teaching, and its major successes, relate to ‘what happens next’ – the manner in which the teacher reacts to how the student interprets, accommodates, rejects, and/or reinvents the content and skills, how the student relates and applies the content to other tasks, and how the student reacts in light of success and failure apropos the content and methods that the teacher has taught.”

In explaining the advantages of visible learning, he highlights educators who develop visible-learning ways of thinking as more likely to have major impacts on student learning. Using juggling as an example, if a teacher decides to learn how to juggle in front of students over the course of a week, semester, or school year, aspiring minds are exposed to seeing a first-hand iterative process of learning from mistakes, making corrections, and trying again until success is achieved. Students develop a comfort level with how to approach a new problem and learn through missteps and failures – in a safe, learning-centered environment. It’s an emerging thought of teaching that is challenging both those who teach and those who shape the environment for learning.

Designing environments for visible learning and teaching

While mostly a direct teaching style and learning outcome, visible learning is an intriguing concept in our education system. If visible learning, and other provocative styles, are gaining momentum, how can we accommodate this evolving pedagogy in the learning environment?

  • Make the room a blank canvas

Planning for a variety of learning and teaching styles is all about flexibility and adaptability. Teachers and students can modify their space to support hourly, daily, or weekly changes in projects. In classrooms, the flexibility to create group areas, individual quiet spaces, creative nooks, and maker spaces for invention and exploration all offer the opportunity for visible learning in the classroom.

  • Provide spaces to create unique learning opportunities

From robotics to virtual reality technologies to makerspaces, curriculums are supported by a wide range of hands-on learning areas designed for cooperative groups. Students learn from seeing and asking questions of other student projects. These problem-solving education techniques encourage students to actively participate in the learning experience and develop a mastery of new skills and competencies. In the spirit that every space is a learning space, windows into the classroom put this experiential learning on display and extend the benefits of visible learning beyond the room into school corridors.

  • Use the environment to build community

Stillwater Area Public SchoolsBecause the concept of community and shared learning is central to the visible learning approach, visibility and transparency of the learning programs throughout the facility is vital. At Stillwater Area Public School’s Brookview Elementary School (currently in construction), grades are paired into wings – K-1, 2-3, and 4-5 – instead of placed along the traditional double-loaded classroom corridor. The wings encourage a team-teaching/collaborative approach and a community environment by featuring a shared space in the middle of classrooms for group learning, active learning activities, and opportunities to connect students and teachers with common academic goals and attitudes.

  • Help teachers become better teachers

Karner Blue Education Center shared teacher officeOne of the attributes of visible learning is sharing learning experiences, making essential dedicated educator spaces for planned meetings and impromptu collaboration. These collaborative areas can assume various looks, from break rooms to lounge areas, meeting rooms, and shared offices. In addition, teachers also need spaces for individual, focused work time, accommodated by smaller, enclosed focused rooms or semi-private spaces. At Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine, Minn., teachers have a shared office space between two classrooms, encouraging daily collaboration of instruction and assessment techniques. The office space is complemented with other rooms for lunch breaks and respite. Giving teachers dedicated space to collaborate and options for individual pedagogical planning can help with implementing visible learning approaches.

The goals of visible learning are innovative and beneficial for students and teachers, as seen through the five strands of visible learning: Know Thy Impact, The Visible Learner, Inspired and Passionate Teachers, Effective Feedback, and the Visible Learning School (systems, processes, and structures). As this teaching method gains momentum in our schools, we will continue to explore and study how space can support visible learning goals and become a stronger partner in supporting the pedagogical evolution.

Change Management: Putting Managers in Position to Succeed

“It’s just a small renovation. This shouldn’t be a big deal?”

Famous. Last. Words. The small project explodes, not by size but by disruption – to office work flow, team structure, amenities, technology, mobile team members, etc.

Projects of any size bring change, and change is a big deal. No matter the size of the project.

Whenever we introduce change to an organization, one of the keys to a successful project is a strategy for change management. More than about managing change, change management identifies how change will impact people and processes – your business, finances, customers, technology, learning, and growth. It is the story of why behind the project, because changing space is easy, but changing minds is not.

The why of a project is an often forgotten story that is drowned out by the noise of project implementation – the budget, square feet, MEP systems, schedule. This key missed step in defining and communicating the why or value story for an organization is one reason change does not happen, or fails within 6-12 months despite the goals and business objectives that sparked the project. And the project manager is left to explain a different why.

For project managers and administrators charged with implementing a project, a successful change management strategy begins with an intimate understanding of the project – connecting the business objectives to goals and defining the impact that the change will have on your organization.

Defining the business case for change is critical in early discussions about project initiatives with leaders. To be successful in these conversations, it’s important to engage leadership with questions like the ones below to shape everyone’s understanding of the goals and objectives for project initiatives:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What are the measures of success?
  • How does this impact our business and staff, processes, and tools?
  • What will our customers think about the change?
  • When is the best time to implement the change?

The answers to these questions benefit project managers on multiple levels. They drive scope and budget, but, as important, they identify the purpose and organizational value of the project. They shape the story of why behind a project – the start of building support for change and a guide during the change when needing to make tough decisions.

At Self-Esteem Brands/Anytime Fitness, why drove much of the change that led to a new headquarters for the fast-growing company: create a people-oriented space to support the success of its staff, teams and franchise partners and develop a purpose-driven environment to inspire people to change lives and tackle one’s fears. They also developed a list of key measures of success, from higher productivity and growth to more collaborative teams, ideas, and solutions.

Identifying these driving forces gave leadership language to communicate to employees and stakeholders the what and why they were moving and building a new headquarters in addition to giving design language for the design team to develop the facility and benchmarks on which to make decisions.

At BWBR, a renovation also created a radical change in a portion of our work space that rippled through the whole organization. A key part of the success of this change has been the well-defined why story that has been shared with the entire organization. There has also been a concerted effort to manage change and measure success along the way. (You can read more about our story of change here.)

Change of any kind isn’t easy, and it can be especially difficult to inspire large organizational change that requires people to think differently about how they work. It can also be easy to overlook the story as budgets and schedules are developed.

Behind the numbers of a project is change, though, and reaction to change. How well that change is managed deep into the project depends significantly on how well that change is understood from the beginning. Developing the why with leadership at the start, people throughout the organization will understand better the impact and purpose behind the change.

The next step is involving key people from every level of your organization to be change advocates and provide feedback to help you learn what’s working and what’s not. Read more about how to do this in our next blog post about change management.