Case study: designed for the staff, by the staff

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Our staffroom occupies a relatively small space (in fact the size of two smallish classrooms) on a city-centre site. We could not expand physically because of our location and there were no alternative spaces we could use. But we had to do something. The staffroom has to serve as a work space, meeting and training space, social space and eating space for more than 80 staff at times. It's used by administrative and technical support staff, teaching assistants, teachers, supply staff, site staff, visiting professionals and trainee teachers throughout the day and sometimes into the evening. Over the years the environment had become run-down, cluttered and shabby. There was little sense of ownership or pride: even staff members who are by nature quite tidy would carelessly leave mess for others to clear.

The staffroom became the priority for our rolling programme of renovation and remodelling. The college principal, Andrew Hutchinson, decided to prioritise funding from the workforce reform and formula capital budgets to make it happen. The governors supported this push to give the staff a more professional working environment. In fact, this was one of the first principles we established to guide the process, as the staffroom is a working environment for all colleagues in the school.

We have a strong and committed staff who deserve quality spaces in which to operate. We were keen to consult as widely as possible, not just on remodelling the space, but also to encourage fresh thinking on other workspaces around the college. A survey was issued to all colleagues in spring 2004. It was personally addressed to every member of staff and an envelope provided for the response. We invited everyone to help set the agenda for a more fundamental programme of workspace improvements over the next couple of years. From a practical point of view, staff were asked to consider not only current needs but also future ones as new roles and practices evolve.

The redesigned space had to fulfil a range of functions: as a workspace, a social space in which staff interact, a venue for informal meetings and training, and as an eating space at key times in the day. When the results of the survey came back, almost two-thirds of the 72 staff had contributed ideas. The most popular requests were for better heating regulation and ventilation, "proper tables" at which to eat as opposed to "laptop dining", new seating arrangements that were flexible and broke away from the semi-segregation that builds up over the years, improved lighting and access to ICT for training within our media college context.

In April a representative group of staff met to analyse the survey results and summarise the key issues. From this summary I drew up an architect's brief, which was circulated to the group for comment, then discussed with the principal, and architect Alistair Haxton. Alistair came up with a design for three distinct zones: eat, meet and work. "Eat" would include a new kitchen incorporating an integrated fridge, dishwasher and microwave.

For "meet" there would be hospitality refreshments for staff and visitors, and an LCD screen displaying notices to reduce the proliferation of paper notices. A glass partition would delineate the work space but still allow in natural light (previously the staffroom had been divided by a boarded screen). The new modern multimedia workspace would have seven flat-screen PCs, a scanner, video editing and printing facilities, and an aerial box, allowing staff to use laptops connected to the college network and the internet.

Alterations started at the beginning of August and lasted through the summer holidays. The environment has been transformed and the outcome exceeded most people's expectations. "This professionalises us in a way teachers deserve," was the reaction of James Durran, an advanced skills teacher. In the first week, new colleagues and supply staff commented that the design was very different to staffrooms they'd seen before.

Smart, modern furniture chosen to suit a professional workspace seems to accommodate everyone, even at busy times. Each of the zones has differentiated lighting to suit. Air conditioning proved one of the highlights in the hot weather of our first week back.

Staff members still contribute towards fresh coffee at morning break time but at any other time during the day, chilled, filtered water and free sachets of coffee, chocolate, tea, herbal and fruit teas are available for staff and visitors.

It's now the pupils who are curious. Some have been overheard on the corridor outside saying: "It's like the Big Brother house in there without the diary room."

Angela Webster is deputy principal of Parkside community college, an 11-16 media arts college in Cambridge. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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