Why you must create space for workplace learning

Business leaders are wrestling with how to integrate formal and informal learning spaces at work to nurture a necessary upskilling culture

In Cal Newport’s influential management tome Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the central tenet is true learning, growth and reflection can best happen at work in a dedicated quiet space.

For Matt Kwiecinski, co-founder and chief executive of Leeds-based digital marketing agency Journey Further, it’s such a powerful message that the book takes pride of place in the agency’s office library, which also doubles as its book club. These are monthly get-togethers when staff discuss a business title and reflect on how its ideas can be incorporated into their enterprise.

For learning to happen, you need to be somewhere boundaries can be pushed

“To us it’s obvious that you can’t hope to think differently if you’re sitting in the same spot you always do,” says Mr Kwiecinski, who has also created a space staff have dubbed the Thunderdome, an “amphitheatre” used for group learning.

“If you were designing our office from scratch, it might be tempting not to have either,” he says. “The library is only used as a place to go and read; the Thunderdome probably gets used twice a month, but that’s not the point. It’s all about us exhibiting our ethos through our workspace, which is caring about clarity of thought and everybody adding value.”

Creating spaces dedicated to workplace learning

Mr Kwiecinski is part of an emerging band of business owners pulling back on recent trends for workspaces to be designed to be as multi-purpose as possible; areas that are meeting rooms one minute, brainstorming spaces the next, social areas another. It’s almost a return to when offices had distinct classrooms; spaces purely for ongoing training and development. But can’t workspaces operate like classrooms too?

“While classrooms in the traditional sense feel outdated, the notion there should be permanently designated space for learning or one-to-many experiences has increasing relevancy,” says Robin Hoyle, head of learning and development at Huthwaite International.

Atul Bansal, co-founder of interior office design firm Sheila Bird Group, adds: “Most CEOs haven’t yet made the connection between space and learning. But they should. Today if you want to encourage continual upskilling, you don’t ‘teach’; you just need space at work to share information. The problem with fad-based office design though is that often space lacks permanency. Staff still need to know what a space is for, and ideally it should try and stay the same.”

Staff of Leeds-based agency Journey Further in the Thunderdome, a space used for group learning.

The importance of having “safe” spaces to contribute bold ideas

Not only does incorporating distinct learning areas into workspaces visibly demonstrate learning is valued, it gives offices additional purpose at a time when staff have more choice about where they decide to work. More than this, many argue true learning only happens if mistakes can be made and that at-desk learning simply doesn’t allow this.

Adrienne Gormley, head of Dropbox Business in Europe, Middle East and Africa, says: “We have the whole floor-to-ceiling scribble walls, space for video conference learning and so on, but we think it’s important to take people to specific and, what we call, ‘safe’ training destinations. By this we mean areas of privacy where people can feel empowered to challenge ideas without fear of onlookers.

“When people don’t feel safe, they contribute ideas that are middle of the road. For learning to happen, you need to be somewhere boundaries can be pushed.”

What is the best approach when designing “learning” spaces?

With studies showing open-plan offices can actually reduce collaboration – at one firm studied by Harvard University, human interaction fell 72 per cent, while 56 per cent more emails were sent when a business moved from a private to open-plan arrangement – more human resources leaders are warming to the idea of trying to understand how to integrate formal and informal learning space to encourage an always-learning culture.

Some, like the manufacturer Worcester Bosch, are leaning towards looser learning spaces. “We took a big management leap of faith recently,” says chief executive Carl Arntzen, “to have two living-room sized coffee areas built to encourage people to move away from their desks and talk and learn from each other.”

Others are upping the ante with much more formal space, which is often beautifully designed. Retail agency Geometry recently opened The Flagship, a space designed by BDG Architecture and Design, comprising a totally immersive 3D floor-to-ceiling projection area that allows brands and retailers to prototype, test and trial technology, which aims to influence shoppers’ behaviour and purchasing decisions.

With two such different approaches, identifying which works best may be tricky. But according to Ben Farmer, head of human resources at Amazon UK, creating workspaces that can be classrooms too is simply about being in tune with the existing culture.

“The way we think about space and culture is linked,” he says. “But for us, we believe learning is best achieved through real-time collaboration and on-the-job learning.” As such, Amazon’s style isn’t having closed-off areas, but lots of group pods, so-called flex rooms, and a variety of other communal spaces, all present at its new London headquarters in Shoreditch.

“Our philosophy is if we have a variety of spaces, people gravitate to whichever suits them. We’ve tried to design our workplace to uphold one of our values of being curious.”

Creating dedicated spaces shows a cultural commitment to learning

It’s a shared sentiment. “If cultural expectation is met with space or technology, learning becomes less about having a certain workplace layout and more about much broader issues, including how management supports employees and dedicating time for development,” says Karen Hebert-Maccaro, chief learning experience officer at learning provider O’Reilly Media.

Recent City & Guilds Group research finds that 34 per cent of UK employees say they work in overly controlled workplaces. Some 32 per cent want better space for more innovation and creativity.

Jane Duncan, vice president and head of people and organisation at Capgemini, concludes: “As employee expectation continues to grow, pressure is on organisations to rethink their approach to learning. This makes understanding the evolution of the workspace a strategic imperative.”