Your next office might be inspired by an elementary school

“Steve, I told you already—I decide when we sell.”
“Steve, I told you already—I decide when we sell.”
Image: Reuters/Michael Kooren
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When it comes to office design, most business leaders look to the latest research, the newest trends, and industry competitors to understand where the future of work is headed. But as an interior designer, it’s only taken me a couple of years as the mother of an elementary school student to realize the future of workplace design doesn’t start in an office. If we really want to understand what’s driving the greatest shifts in the workplace, we should look no further than the first grade.

My son, a six-year-old, sits at a table with three other students every day. Since preschool, his classroom experiences have consisted of shared tables rather than desks, learning centers, and partner projects. I recently showed him a picture of a classroom with individual desks facing forward in neat rows, and he responded, “Is that some kind of old-timey school? How do you get anything done?”

While many companies have been making strides toward flexible, open offices, the typical workplace still consists of individual desks, cubicles, and enclosed offices interspersed with a few conference rooms. This would most likely fall into the category my son calls “old timey.” Based on the diverse ways kids of my son’s generation are learning today, when they reach working age, many current office spaces will not be conducive to getting work done. The collaborative learning models being used in elementary schools should therefore drive the next wave of office design.

Educators as leaders in design experimentation

The education industry’s movement toward collaborative environments and learning styles extends beyond my son’s school in Dallas. For years, education research has revealed that collaborative learning techniques can lead to more student engagement and better outcomes. The design and structure of classrooms play a very important role in such collaborative learning.

Elementary schools—on an individual level and throughout entire school systems—have been embracing and implementing collaborative spaces and learning styles for years: It’s now common for students to learn science in an outdoor classroom, to have a choice as to where and how they get their work done, or to complete projects in what the education-design community calls “makerspaces,” which are dedicated locations where students gather to share resources and knowledge and work on hands-on projects. I continue to hear consistently from my colleagues in education design that choice, creativity, and meaningful interaction are top priorities among school design leaders.

This push for flexibility and choice in elementary education is also driving change in higher education. Over the past decade, some of the most innovative architectural projects in the US have been on university campuses. From the ivy leagues to public universities, colleges across the country have been completely reimagining classrooms and study spaces to facilitate interactive and collaborative learning. Perhaps one of the most well-known efforts in the space is MIT’s “TEAL” program, which saw higher attendance and lower failure rates after it replaced large lecture halls with smaller hands-on classrooms. Countless other universities have since followed suit with similar programs under their own acronyms, all aimed at designing and creating more collaborative environments. Other notable universities and programs include North Carolina State’s SCALE-UP program, the University of Minnesota’s ALC spaces and the University of North Texas Center for Visual Arts and Design.

Translating to the workplace

Many educational institutions have been repurposing underused libraries and common spaces by enabling them with wifi and plentiful power sources. And thus, the original co-working concept was born. Additionally, the traditional student center has morphed into an all-day hub of activity, enabled by laptops that allow projects to happen anywhere. Today, we see this replicated on corporate campuses in a work café setting, designed not only for lunchtime but to be used all day as alternative workspaces and collaborative spaces. Robust wifi networks have also turned outdoor, atrium, and courtyard spaces between buildings into sought-after meeting areas and workspaces.

As students graduate from college and enter the workforce, they not only bring their tech prowess but also a work style that demands more variety and choice. Technology start-ups have been the most responsive to this need, and it’s no surprise that some of the most enviable workplaces are those of the youngest companies that didn’t have decades of procedure and hundreds of square feet to rethink. However, a lot of focus has been placed on the “fun and flashy” aspects of these designs. Slides, nap pods, and foosball tables are certainly reflective of a certain type of culture, but they are not what make these places so desirable for young people to work: It’s the freedom to choose how they accomplish their work. (Although, I would never underestimate the power of a barista.)

The changes currently happening in the workplace aren’t just a “millennial thing.” The desire for variety and choice in where and how we work is actually the result of a large shift in how we are taught to work, learn, and solve problems in school. This is why business leaders should pay close attention to what’s happening in schools, and apply this knowledge to their workplaces today.

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As I continue to think about my son’s first-grade routine, I’ve realized his daily schedule resembles that of many technology businesses. Every day essentially starts with a “scrum meeting,” quickly gathering to review the focus of the day, determine who is responsible for what, and establish the goals to be accomplished. Young people are not only learning how to work in much more flexible and collaborative environments, but they’re thinking, learning, and working in a group-oriented mindset. This is drastically different from the siloed experiences many leaders today experienced when they were young. They need to take notice, and quickly.

Imagine it’s 2032. A prospective employee is being toured through a facility with homogenous cubicles and traditional four-walled conference rooms. By then, this office style will look like a foreign landscape. (Or as my son might say, “old-timey.”) But that scenario is only fifteen years away—which is the duration of a typical lease term for a commercial office space today.

Designers and business leaders alike better start spending some more time in the first grade.