Putting the fun into functional staffrooms

26th May 2017 at 00:00
As the trend grows for offices that resemble kids’ playgrounds on steroids, Jessica Powell investigates whether it could ever translate to a school setting

If Peter Pan had to earn a crust in the 21st century, he’d surely do it at Google. The tech giant’s offices feature everything from scooters to slides. The aim? “To create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world”, according to a spokesperson.

What it’s certainly created is a trend, as more companies are investing in bright, fun offices with a smattering of pool tables and psychedelic paint jobs. But does it make a difference? And if so, could it work, scaled down, in school staffrooms?

Hold that eye roll for now...

“All employers should make the working environment attractive for staff,” says David Uzzell, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey. “It shouldn’t be an optional extra. Research demonstrates it can impact the health and wellbeing of staff, as well as productivity.”

He points to a 2016 report from the Royal Institute of British Architects, which found schools with the best design (including natural lighting, colour and visual interest) were linked to teacher wellbeing and a 15 per cent increase in productivity.

However, when it comes to the specific playground-cum-office formula, Professor Uzzell doesn’t know of any research into its impact. So there’s no scientific answer to the question of whether slides make staff happier.

Still, you might anticipate companies that have taken the Neverland approach earnestly extolling specific benefits. Not necessarily: instead, many say playgrounds are not designed to have an impact in themselves, but are simply a tool to create a better overall working environment. Sky Betting and Gaming recently opened an office in Leeds complete with a poker table, putting green, roundabout and more. However, marketing and HR director Rob Painter is candid about these being novelties: “As a betting and gaming business, things like poker tables are reminders you don’t work for the council. It’s a bit of fun.”

The real priority, he says, was to create a space that encouraged openness and collaboration. One striking feature is a roulette wheel imprinted on the floor, for example. Painter notes: “Really this is just a space with a screen where people can gather collectively to present. Similarly, the roundabout is somewhere people can sit for meetings. It’s about creating things people can congregate around. Aesthetics are nice, but they’re only about 20 per cent of it.”

The company has quite high numbers of staff recruited through in-house referral, he says. He puts that down to the attractive culture rather than any one novel item.

Money talks

Bringing people together was the main priority at Innocent’s offices in London, too.

“While we’ve got things like ping pong, table football and Lego walls, the thing we focus on is using our space to build a strong community,” says environment and culture leader David McKay. “We have one giant space called the Chillout, enabling us to do all sorts together – whether it’s a big meeting or a knees-up at five on Friday.”

While teachers might scoff at the idea of a staffroom slide, creating an appealing space that brings colleagues together is surely worthwhile. And that doesn’t exist in many schools, according to some teachers.

“Teachers need a relaxing space to meet. They become isolated when they don’t,” says teacher Linda Strachan. “Staffrooms are something I’ve felt frustration with. Financial investment in them has always been minimal where I’ve worked: not enough seating for everyone; never enough cutlery; photo displays of students gazing down at you, not allowing a moment’s pause.”

Of course, creating a swish office is one thing in the private sector (Painter estimates that around £100,000 was spent on fun, decorative features at theirs) and another in schools.

“I think heads would be worried to death it would get in the papers that they spent money on ‘pampering’ the staff,” notes Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School. “However, if teachers find the environment they’re working in relaxing, I think the kids will benefit enormously.”

Some schools have already recognised the benefits of a better environment for staff: slides are in short supply, but some features from the offices of Silicon Valley have seeped in.

 

 

At Northwold Primary School in London, headteacher Alison Kriel gave staff spaces a makeover after concerns when she joined that employees were at risk of feeling burnt out. “The staffroom now has cosy sofas and a huge communal table, which encourages staff to talk over lunch,” she says.

“We also have a staff gym – a converted toilet block – and a Zen garden with a hammock, picnic benches and barbecue.”

Employees can also access bicycles, massages and subsidised healthy lunches – all in a state school.

She established a wellbeing budget, which took up around 1 per cent of the total budget.

“Since we’ve introduced it, staff attendance has increased from 64 per cent to 98 per cent. That’s a huge saving in supply teachers. So investing in staff actually saves us money to spend on the curriculum,” she reflects. “Our pupil attainment has also increased, rising from the bottom 1 per cent to the top 1 per cent, because we have excellent teachers who know they’re valued and give their all.”

At Roger de Clare Church of England First School and Nursery in Hertfordshire, headteacher Laura Woods revamped the staffroom with colleagues one summer.

“I wanted the staffroom to be an oasis,” she explains. “We moved the professional notice board so you’re not confronted with it when you come in and painted the wall a bold colour, decorating it with stick-on butterflies. I brought in some cushions my mum was throwing out. We made a more personal pin board – wedding photos, baby pictures – and added a few plants and nice tea and coffee canisters.”

It cost under £100 – mostly out of Woods’ pocket. Her employees were thrilled as her efforts delivered a simple message: they mattered.

In a survey by Management Today magazine, 97 per cent of people said they saw their workplace as a symbol of whether they were valued by their employer. And Cooper suggests simple solutions like those used by Woods are the way forward.

“Schools are never going to be like Google, but the head could say, ‘Let’s have a project to get staff and students thinking about what the environment is like here’ [in both staff and student spaces]. You could make it a learning experience – growing plants, painting. Get parents involved – perhaps some are builders, painters, or work at garden centres,” he says. “Research suggests if you want to enhance morale, you should engage staff in decision-making – even about the workplace interior.”

It’s crucial a makeover doesn’t smack of a gimmick. Wedge a pool table into a school where teachers don’t have time for the loo and it’s likely to enrage, not delight.

“We should be dealing with the cause of the stress, not literally painting over it,” warns Uzzell.

The bigger picture

Louise Muller, deputy headteacher and wellbeing leader at West Rise Community Infant School in Sussex, agrees. Among other things, they have a staff Wellness Room where teachers can practise mindfulness, reiki sessions and yoga classes (she recommends a “pay £1 to wear jeans to work on Friday” initiative to raise funds. Teachers pay for yoga themselves).

“This is not a fad,” says Muller. “For us, the wellness room is a place to go to ensure that you are mentally and physically well enough to be in front of a class. Of course, this depends on staff having time to use it, so we timetable that in. It’s also part of our culture that you can ask colleagues to cover you.”

The school has low staff turnover – perhaps evidence that these initiatives work.

For Kriel, it’s the same: “I encourage staff to take breaks. We’ve shortened the workday, and reduced the number of meetings. I’m also learning to be better at modelling it.”

When it comes to the likes of slides and pool tables, teachers divide over whether they’re a comfortable fit.

“In our setting they would be seen as gimmicks. It’s hard enough finding time for vital wellbeing work, let alone going down a giant slide,” says Muller.

For others, it may not be such a stretch to think a bit of silliness is in keeping with prioritising staff wellbeing. “These elements give people a break – they feel like they’ve stepped away from the workplace,” says Woods.

“We have a garden and it would be fantastic to do something there so staff have the same benefits of a putting green or slide.”

Either way, it seems what matters to teachers is creating a space where the emphasis is shifted away from work and on to sharing a moment’s light relief.


Jessica Powell is a freelance writer. She tweets @jpjourno

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