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Working Together

Working Together

Schools are universities are choosing furniture that encourages collaboration.

Library study rooms, like private offices, are wilting. They are not quite dead; they are just having a difficult time sustaining themselves in a world of mass collaboration hungry for places to work together. An open floor plan with the right furniture can create flexible and easily accessible collaboration spaces that work.

Corporate environments and furniture have adapted to complement evolving working relationships, and school and university environments are following suit.

24/7 collaborative space

Students need space to gather, share ideas, talk, develop common understanding and work to create greater knowledge. This focus on collaboration has put a strain on group study spaces. Students need to collaborate spontaneously, and scheduling time in a study room is not conducive to spur-of-the-moment collaboration. At many education institutions, the availability of safe and flexible, yet comfortable spaces for group work is limited and lacks accessibility.

And it is not just an issue for students; it also is an issue for faculty and staff. Demand is growing for collaboration among teachers and librarians to share experience, expertise and curriculum development so they can meet the rigorous demands of new learning standards. Instructors also are looking for informal space to work with students.

New learning standards require students to perform higher levels of research and problem-solving, use multimedia tools and diverse reference resources, and build new knowledge as individuals and as collaborators on teams. Yet, space to initiate these activities is limited. When new space becomes available, the results can be outstanding.

Some of the furniture needed to create collaborative spaces is readily available. It is easy to divide a large open space with mobile boards or screens, low shelving, temporary storage or simply just open space. Open space keeps the area flexible and easy to modify as educational requirements change.

New materials such as acrylic resin or textured glass create design options for defining space in a more permanent way while enhancing the play of light and texture in an area. Curved or partial walls made of textured resin can add shape and a sense of fluidity to spaces. These spaces are highly visible, yet provide a group of people a clear location to meet.

Furniture vs. small rooms

Floor-to-ceiling walls are not flexible, easily moved or always safe. Study rooms are scheduled continually, making them harder to clean, empty trash or wipe off tables. And once a door or blinds are closed, sightlines no longer exist, requiring staff or security to patrol the area. Another frequent complaint about study rooms is noise; a closed room rarely is soundproof, yet students become louder when using these rooms.

Enclosed rooms seem ideal for multimedia presentation projects. A room with projection equipment, flatscreen monitors, sound or video equipment, speakers and other presentation equipment probably should be reserved. However, other furniture options for managing these types of presentation spaces are available.

A new development in booth seating uses 5- to 6-foot-high backs on lounge seating combined with small, powered conference tables. These contemporary seating options are a much sleeker version of traditional booths and can be used to break up open spaces as well. Elaborate versions come with presentation options built in, providing plug-in features for laptops or tablets to connect to a monitor secured to a panel.

Collaboration areas can be designed by using contemporary furniture. A simple first step is to eliminate a significant number of single study carrels and replace them with two- or three-person workstations with task chairs. Isolated study carrels buried in library stacks have poor lighting, usually lack power outlets and come equipped with an uncomfortable, wooden chair. Today’s students want something different.

Modern spaces

One new concept is an office bench system, which provides an open, flat worksurface with low divider screens between facing workers. A transparent, 12-inch-high screen can offer a visual break to minimize eye contact. The flat surfaces are designed to accommodate a run of individuals or several teams working beside each other. The long work surface also can be divided by incorporating storage modules. Couple the work surfaces with adjacent, breakaway lounge seating for comfortable discussions, and a collaborative environment is created.

These new bench configurations are coming into offices and replacing cubicles and panel walls. They are more conducive to collaboration, save valuable space, and frequently are not assigned. Individuals simply come in, sit down, plug in and go to work. Other enhancements can include mobile whiteboards or cafe tables and chairs for brainstorming and social interaction. This fosters behavior exactly like what is being encouraged in schools and universities.

Large tables positioned at coffee-table heights are another positive way to create comfortable, collaborative spaces. These large tables mixed with lounge or executive-style task chairs invite groups to sit down, spread out their material and launch a discussion. Comfortable, task or lounge seating on casters is a must in these collaborative spaces. The ability to easily move a chair into a collaborative meeting is critical.

A great way to capture underutilized floor space is to incorporate backless, modular bench or ottoman concepts. These units come on beam legs or with traditional feet. Seating options include fabric, wood, metal, plastics or a mixture of several. They can be linked together to form complementary shapes to define space, and are an excellent way to leverage hallways, atriums or entryways for spontaneous teamwork.

Power options should be integrated into nearly every furniture concept. Providing students with easy access to power and computer networks is critical to moving people out of study rooms where wall outlets usually are plentiful.

Another way to view the design requirements of new furniture is to ask if it is user-centered. Students want to integrate technology easily into their work and study behavior. This question is being addressed in business environments. Using many of these contract solutions, it also is reaching newly built or renovated university spaces. However, in the K-12 area, very few manufacturers have accepted the challenge to introduce change.

Sullivan is library sales and marketing manager with Smith System, Plano, Texas. She currently is serving on the AASL Implementation Task Force for the Standards and Guidelines for 21st Century Learners. She can be reached at [email protected].

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