College campuses should learn the power of design from corporate America

November 22, 2021, 9:24 PM UTC
The New York Institute of Technology's Long Island campus added outdoor "parklets" with wireless capabilities and seating areas.
Courtsey of New York Institute of Technology

More and more companies are bringing employees back to the office–or at least plan to–after the surge of Covid-19 cases subsides. But for many workers, those offices will look a lot different than they did in March 2020.

Numerous companies, including tech leaders like Salesforce and Spotify, have changed everything from the furniture to the desk layouts to better promote collaboration. It’s just the latest example of corporate America using design as a tool to maximize workers’ satisfaction and productivity. For years, forward-looking corners of corporate America have bucked conventional office norms, replacing traditional cubicles and sterile conference rooms with thoughtful spaces that reinforce human relationships and foster quality of workplace life.

Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have historically lagged behind corporate America in designing spaces for their constituents. Rather than focusing on the student experience, institutions of higher education have designed spaces with donors and administrators in mind. They’ve pursued designs that exude status and prestige rather than comfort, function, and equitable access.

Before Covid-19, students had no choice but to make do with their campus environments. But the pandemic changed that, permanently altering the meaning of harmonious physical space for schools, businesses, hospitals, and virtually every other nook of our society.

Now, university administrators have the rare, groundbreaking opportunity to create on-campus environments students genuinely feel comfortable in. It’s time that institutions of higher education ask their students what they want out of their campuses and ensure that improving equity and access are their top priorities.

Consider the value of design in corporate settings. According to the Fellowes Workplace Wellness Trend Report, nearly 90% of surveyed employees would like their employer to provide healthier workspaces, from sit-stand desks and ergonomic seating to wellness rooms.

Many of those employers have listened, putting workers at the center of their office design plans. Google, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Nike, and other corporate giants have built quiet spaces for employees to take mental breaks–and even naps–during the workday.

Others have incorporated green spaces into the office environment. Amazon’s Seattle location recently built several large domes into its workspace, each of which houses tens of thousands of plants. In 2015, Facebook unveiled a nine-acre green roof with a walking loop so employees can simultaneously collaborate and enjoy the outdoors. 

These sorts of changes can directly impact employee satisfaction, morale, and productivity. Seventy percent of workers with access to natural light and views report improved performance, according to a survey from HR firm Future Workplace. 

It’s smart for businesses to invest in these designs. If employees feel comfortable and content in their workplace, they enjoy their work and put in quality effort. They respond well to the respect their employers show them. The same can be expected of college students. If they feel valued and secure in their research libraries, lecture halls, cafes, and campus quads, they can focus more effectively on studying, look forward to learning, and thrive academically.

Already, there’s evidence that students’ surroundings shape their wellbeing and academic performance. One 2019 study found that college students’ frequent exposure to green spaces was linked to improved mood and reduced stress levels. Architects at the University of Illinois found that high schoolers with green views from their classrooms scored higher on tests that measured their attention spans. 

The New York Institute of Technology is working with students to bring them closer to nature. On our Long Island campus, outdoor “parklets” with wireless capabilities and outdoor seating areas etched into the landscape will allow students to feel safe studying and socializing. Indoor enhancements also draw inspiration from nature. Our vertical New York City campus is also enjoying a reinvention. Here, spaces where students spend their time–including student lounges and cafés–will be sustainably designed to prioritize natural light and feature greenery. 

Most importantly, throughout our process, we’ve worked with student government associations and design committees to hear their ideas and understand their needs. After all, colleges already invest billions in campus architecture, collectively. They have a fiscal responsibility to ensure these improvements provide strong returns.  In other words, asking students what they want from their experience should become commonplace. 

The power of design is real. Corporate America knows that. It’s time colleges and universities discover the same to foster student success.

Suzanne Marie Musho AIA, NCARB is the chief architect and vice president for real estate development and sustainable capital planning at New York Institute of Technology, which has campuses in New York City and Long Island, among other locations.

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