How to design areas that allow formal and informal discussions and team-work

This post was written by Anna Rose (@annasabine_rose), Director of architecture and design company Space Syntax (@Space_Syntax). It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network October half term newsletter (sign up here).

It is widely accepted that the joint development of teaching practice is of fundamental importance in improving teachers’ professional development. However, the currently revised school premises regulations mean that schools may no longer need a staff room. So given the importance of team development among school staff, one should consider the possible impact of the removal of this requirement on the overall performance of our schools.

My organisation, multi-disciplinary consultancy Space Syntax Limited is at the forefront of describing relational properties of space in buildings that can be directly related to human activity patterns. The methods and tools we use have been developed together with University College London and are used to deliver evidence-based design advice to developers, architects and community stakeholders. On the basis of our varied day-to-day practice I would argue that many conclusions concerning the impact of design and spatial qualities on the activities of staff teams in all kinds of offices, hospital buildings and museums, are equally relevant for the understanding of the design of education facilities.

The spatial organisation of staff in the work environment

Why are we still coming together in workplaces, given that we have at our disposal a wide range of electronic telecommunication devices? The reason is the power of face to face interaction which has yet to be replicated by technology. Human interaction is everything, especially in the creative, innovation and knowledge intensive sectors, including education. In the past we have tried different approaches to the design of work environments ranging from cellular offices to open plan and everything in between. However, practice shows that rather than a single solution, a variety of environments with different qualities are necessary for a successful and intelligent work environment.

The design of schools cannot be driven solely by regulations and organisational structure. Instead, there needs to be a strategy addressing functionality in the context of the teachers’ and pupils needs providing the right conditions in form of a range of different types of environments for different activities. For example, those surely must include the need for teacher spaces away from the pupils. The fact ultimately is that most employees in most industries are no longer tied to their desk at work, but rather have a ‘home’ in the workplace from where they organise their activities across a variety of environments with a range of different qualities which they share with their colleagues. The economy of hot-desking these multi-tasking spaces is of course another advantage of this approach since it can reduce redundancy of spaces within a building drastically. However, while it is desirable to create a circulation structure which avoids a ‘back of house/ front of house’ separation between pupils and staff and provides a convivial environment, teachers need to be able to control their presence and privacy in order to protect their position in the social hierarchy of the school.

The role of human interaction

We study human behaviour in the workplace in order to understand better the communication processes taking place. Informal human interaction is one of the key drivers of knowledge exchange. In the creative industries, spatial and workplace culture is directly linked with productivity. Space planning and knowledge management are the key to successful workplace design. A while ago Space Syntax observed an advertising agency in which 80% of all staff interaction takes place in an unplanned manner. Of this, about 80% lasts less than one minute (The Space of Innovation, Penn, Desyllas, Vaughan,1997). How can the design of the workspace respond to this?

The strength of any creative organisation is shaped as much by the day-to-day chance contact of its members as it is by formal gatherings such as scheduled appointments. In fact, innovation in the workplace is often the result of informal, ‘unplanned’ interaction. Critical information leading to business innovation often comes from such informal encounters between colleagues belonging to different departments within the same organisation. By analysing the relationships between physical layout and space occupation strategy, it is possible to establish the appropriate degree of movement and encounter.


One of the key social processes taking place regarding informal communication is the ‘recruitment of colleagues’. For example, the moment a person leaves their desk, they make themselves ‘available’ in the recruitment process. How can we create opportunities for this to happen in schools? In many schools there are not enough opportunities or suitable spaces for this. Corridors are too narrow to stop and there is nowhere to sit down spontaneously. Multi-use circulation zones also help to reduce unsupervised space which can represent safety issues as they lend themselves for anti-social behaviour/bullying.

Space Syntax: a method of analysing space and forecasting human activity patterns

What does all this mean for the design of better schools which foster healthy collaboration between teachers and pupils? We need to provide alternative space types and allow people to move around. Spaces need to multi-task and we need spaces with no obvious function attached to them. Most importantly, we need to understand the impact of space configuration on the movement of people within them in order to optimise the design. Since movement is the common currency of social and creative interaction, the success of an innovative organisation can be led by the strength of its public spaces and circulation infrastructure. The careful design and structuring of these facilities can radically enhance the creativity and innovation of an organisation. Interventions can target the following levels of physical intervention:

1. Footprint/layout and overall shape of the buildings and (hard)

2. Locations of entrances/circulation elements/cores (hard)

3. Partitions (flexible)

4. Furniture (soft)

Using spatial planning tools provides schools with control over the performance of new buildings and a better understanding of the impact of existing buildings. The delivery of such services is usually structured into a diagnostic and a prognostic element. If a school does not provide a layout which facilitates informal communication and a variety of different environments for different purposes, organisations might struggle to realise the potential of their employees and pupils. On the other hand, a clear understanding of the spatial relationships governing existing interaction patterns can be utilized to target physical interventions which will enhance informal communication, exchange and thereby support team work and innovation, prerequisites in the delivery of high-quality education.

Three steps for schools to make their building work harder for them

1. Understand your school building:  identify existing patterns of movement and communication in the building by observing and interviewing all users, including teachers, pupils, support staff. Describe and map which areas are busy and which areas are underused to build up a picture of the constraints and opportunities of your building.

2. Realign functional requirements with the spatial potential of the building:

  • Within staff areas identify activity zones and create opportunities for staff to ‘recruite’ each other in conversation around busy areas, for example close to copy machines, coffee makers, near the entrance of the staff room (for example use bar stools and counters)
  • Locate zones for small group conversation and hot-desking one step away from the ‘recruitement zone’. This will improve the awareness of ‘co-presence’ while allowing a degree of concentration and privacy (for example use small tables and comfortable chairs)
  • Locate desks for individual, concentrated work two steps away from the ‘recruitement zone’ , but within visibility (desks behind glass doors for acoustic insulation)
  • Identify suitable areas for functional tables and chairs within the circulation areas of the school, which can be used by both pupils and staff both during lessons and break times. This will enhance co-awareness and social surveillance.

3. Actively encourage re-invention of identified underused and problematic spaces in the school

Actively manage and reprogram spaces which are underused and problematic and incentive their usage in new ways. This could even include closing off problematic common area and possibly even turn them into controlled environments for special uses only. Some spaces might completely change just by providing ‘soft measures’ such as new furniture and better lighting. Engage pupils and / or artists in the functional redefinition and redesign.


Anna Rose is a trained architect and director of Space Syntax Limited. She has worked in Germany, the US and the UK, developing a specialism in urban design and spatial planning. Since 2007 Anna is a director of Space Syntax Limited, where she has built up experience since 2002, advising private and public sector clients in design development processes of public spaces, complex buildings and urban areas. She has lectured to architectural, urban design and landscape design audiences across Europe and in the US. She has an interest in how the configuration of the built environment impacts on activity patterns and social-economic performance of buildings and urban areas. |

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