Stemming originally from ancient China, feng shui is a practice that was once used to align buildings and design city layouts based on metaphoric energies called qi. While the science of feng shui is unproven, it is clear that the organization of our physical environments affects our attitudes, actions, and emotions. You’ll know this if you had to spend a summer in college working in the dark, cramped basement of an administrative office as opposed to, say, the top floor of a high rise with minimal furniture and wide open views.
Some companies over the years have dabbled in changing the space in offices to improve productivity, but most decisions were and still are based on available budget. In recent years, startup companies that have changed the landscape of business have also changed the way businesses think about employee happiness. The first step was creating a work environment that was conducive to creativity and productivity. This article takes a look at how startups like Google, Facebook, and Airbnb have built amazing workspaces that improve employee happiness and thus (according to recent academic research) improve productivity. We then examine a few ways that schools can implement these lessons in their spaces to augment the educational experience.
Google is known for their extravagant office workspaces, in which slides, firefighter poles, aquariums, and restaurants are all within comfortable reach. They were inspired by SAS Institute for their focus on employee happiness, which confirmed the belief that happy employees make happy and productive companies. There is a rule at Google that no employee should ever be more than 100 meters away from food, which is,of course, free. The idea is that people work better when they are in a comfortable, nurturing environment. The following are a few things that Google has added to their workplace environment to improve employee productivity. With some tweaking, they can be effectively used in the school and classroom setting as well.
In order to pinpoint the best environment, Google tracks everything from the very first interaction that an employee has with their manager to the way they move about their office space. For example, after some experimentation, they realized that nourishment is essential for productivity. Because of this, they provide free food to all employees. Furthermore, no employee is ever more than 150 feet from food. This tracking of data significantly improves the company’s performance overall and reduces the number of unknown factors that can potentially degrade employee happiness. I had the opportunity to do something similar while teaching English in South Korea, where I conducted an experiment in my classroom in order to find the most effective teaching method and style. This diligent tracking allowed me to adjust my methods accordingly and improved my performance meaningfully.
David Radcliffe, the vice president of Google’s Real Estate & Workplace Services, conducts similar experiments in office design. In fact, Radcliffe went so far as to build a space specifically built for experimentation so the team could continually tweak and retool. It is fitting that Google calls their workspace a “living laboratory”.
One very interesting finding from the research is the idea of creating casual collisions. Instead of using traditional conference rooms, Google uses restaurant diner booths in open space as meeting rooms. This gives employees of different backgrounds — engineer, design, marketing — a chance to run into each other. This is based on the idea that inspiration cannot be scheduled, and this idea improves the chances of inspiration occurring.
Google offers a gymnasium, basketball court, and other amenities to help employees stay active and fit.. Additionally, Google makes use of nap pods, as naps have been shown to improve problem solving skills, memory, and creative thinking.
Taking health a step further, Google took their experimentation to the lunchroom, where they created something called Nudges, a program that helps employees make better eating decisions. Foods are color-coded with green, yellow, and red, with red being the least healthy. According to a study by Douglas Levy et al, purchases of red label foods decreased by more than 15% and red label drinks decreased by 39% — a significant finding for the fight against obesity
While some of these very forward-thinking ideas, like nap pods and keeping employees fed for free, may not sound applicable to the classroom, the ideas can be used to create an environment in which students are better able to focus and learn.
Google has created the workspace that we now see not because it looks cool or because they are awesome (though they are both of those things), but because its own empirical research shows that building such an environment increases productivity, thus improving the company overall. Tracking data allows the company to experiment with unique methods in a constructive way without wasting time or money.
So how can teachers track this data in the classroom?
Teachers already track a wealth of data, and are in position to be some of the best social scientists because of their ability to observe student actions on a daily basis. For example, if teachers wanted to try the pomodoro method and monitor its effectiveness as compared to student productivity without it, tracking this data for a few months will help teachers understand how students respond and how to improve upon these techniques. Tracking student happiness, reactions, classroom participation, and other specifics like grades will help teachers improve their methods of teaching to be as effective as possible. Numbers provide the evidence for change and this is where it all begins.
While casual encounters might be difficult to manage at school (students may end up just chit-chatting the entire time), creating a situation where students have the opportunity to not only mix with other classes, but also crossover and blend subjects, inspires unique perspectives and views. For example, having a joint class or two with an art and a chemisty class may result in original and inspired assignments. Another way teachers can implement this idea of casual encounters is encouraging team-based learning. This method of learning empowers students and encourages ingenuity through collaboration with other students. When done correctly, team-based learning can lead to great insights.
Last but not least, we highly recommend doing a good round of Mystery Skype on Twitter. Just follow the hashtag #mysteryskype and your class will soon being having an encounter with a classroom halfway across the world!
Snacking is a healthy habit for students. While we cannot force students to eat healthy, we can certainly educate students on the healthiest eating practices. That is the first step. Borrowing from Google’s Nudge concept, schools may be able to color-code plates to let students know what options are less healthy than others. Additionally, having a school-wide health awareness program may help to reduce obesity, which has increased from 5% in 1980 to nearly 21% in 2012.
Besides nutrition, there are other ways that teachers can help students learn more effectively by staying healthy. In a previous article, we wrote about how meditation can help students improve focus and creativity. Encouraging quick exercises in brief blocks of time throughout the day can improve productivity. Likewise, while nap pods may not be affordable for schools (they run an upward of $12,000), setting aside a designated napping area may help form a safe, relaxing environment in which students can recharge. According to WebMD, the ideal naps last from 20-30 minutes. Many colleges and universities have already begun to offer nap rooms based on the health benefits.
In addition to Google, countless companies have experimented with different techniques to improve productivity. Here are some other ways that teachers can help students create a comfortable learning environment.
Depending on the specific situation, teachers can let students personalize the classroom and vote on processes. This democratic approach gives students a sense of ownership over their situation. In the workplace, it has been shown that designing one’s own work space has significant benefits, improving productivity by as much as 32%. Facebook took this to another level and used its own platform to conduct polls asking its employees what they wanted in an office and designed it based on the results. Even the academic research says that people who decorate their own desks and personalize it according to their personality end up happier overall.
Studies have shown that having plants in the workplace increases productivity. This can likely be attributed to the calming effect that nature has on us, especially in our concrete cities. In addition to having plants in the classroom, teachers can use this opportunity to teach students the benefit of growing their own plants, including food. Ron Finley, who calls himself the Gangsta Gardener, is one person who empowers people in his city through the act of gardening.
As 99u.com reports, the research indicates that the perfect workspaceconsists of tall ceilings, rounded furniture, a lot of windows, and a messy desk, which increases creativity. While scientists do not fully understand why, the American Psychological Association confirms this notion. In addition to a messy desk, arranging your classroom seats and desks in a circular arrangement inspires a collective mindset within the classroom in which collaboration occurs. Desks that are set up in rows increase feelings of isolation.
Companies all over the world are finding new ways to improve the workplace environment in a way that benefits both employees and employers. Schools can learn from these companies’ successes and mistakes in order to create an environment that promotes learning and enhances student and teacher experiences. For more information about creating the ideal classroom environment, here is a list of the most beautiful workspaces around the world.
If you could design your dream classroom, what would it like? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.