Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Reason Why the Spatial Design of Sensei Office is Popular Among Teachers
[February 04, 2020] BY Kazumasa Ikoma
Translated by Alexandria Hill
In recent years, many companies have been working hard to reform their work styles, even in the educational setting. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) picked up the long working hours of teachers in a survey on teachers’ working conditions (FY2016) in “Work Style Reform in Schools,” and stated that “the actual working conditions of teachers, who cannot be overlooked, are clear.” The need to increase productivity and reduce working hours is no different from the working style reforms of ordinary companies.
While many schools struggle with the fundamental reforms of working styles as well as general companies, Shimane Prefectural Tsuwano High School has a unique approach. The operation is still progressing, with the flow of seeing the situation for one year while repeating the improvement. The staff room was named “Sensei Office” because it was regarded as such – an office for teachers. Breaking away from the traditional way of working with stacks of papers on a boring gray steel desk, the aim is to “improve the working environment of teachers, improve work efficiency, and improve the quality and engagement time with students.” Since April 2019, this space suitable for teachers’ working style has been in operation. This operation is still progressing, and they will continue to make improvements while watching the situation of the course of a year.
It is an interesting case in which public schools attempting to reform the working style of teachers must also consider the space that manages sensitive personal information such as grades and answer sheets, but must also foster more productive and fulfilling interactions with students. How is this “new staff room” created by the collaboration between Shimane’s prefectural high school and an office furniture manufacturer operated? We spoke with Ryo Kataiki, CEO of Vitra Japan, from Swiss furniture maker “Vitra,” who was in charge of concept development and design.
Background: Teachers’ Work Style Reform Indispensable for Making High School Attractive
The Decline of Students and the Presence of Coordinators
The birth of the Sensei Office stems from the depopulation issue facing the mountainous area where Tsuwano HIgh School is located. Like many schools, Tsuwano High faced the problem of declining student numbers due to the declining birthrate, as well as the simultaneous cutbacks in schools.
To address this issue, the”High School Attractiveness Project” began in 2011. Since 2013, “High School Appeal Coordinators” have been established. A coordinator’s role is to make schools more attractive by creating opportunities for non-administrative staff and non-teaching staff to bridge the region and the school. That effort has been achieved little by little, and the number of students has increased. At present, 53 students, about one-third of school students from over 16 prefectures, are enrolled as non-prefectural students and live in Tsuwano. Additionally, in 2018 for the first time in 27 years, Tsuwano had a successful applicant enter the prestigious University of Tokyo. After enrolling at Tsuwano High School from Yokohama, the student learned about the problem of abandoned bamboo groves and worked on research and utilization with the help of coordinators and local residents.
Thanks to these activities, the number of students began to grow leading to further education reform in the town of Tsuwano and a deeper interest in Shimane Prefecture. They say Shimane’s “education is advanced and interesting.”
Number of students at Tsuwano High School
Schools and coordinators were challenged by the above-mentioned work style reform in schools advocated by MEXT. In general, teachers take on all tasks, such as building relationships with parents and extracurricular activities, as well as educating students in schools. The country’s solution was to instill a reform by streamlining and reducing the amount of work and staffing.
Coordinators came to their solution in 2017 when Vitra and Yahoo!Japan teamed up in Yahoo!Japan’s open collaboration space called “LODGE” to create their “Jikken Office,” or “Experiment Office.” This project was an experimental project that focused on changing the environment and furniture to alter the consciousness of workers, promote communication between people, and see if innovation occurs. Vitra immediately contacted the principal, the teacher, and the coordinator.
The Difficulty of Reviewing Teachers’ Work And Building a New Concept of a Staff Room From Scratch
According to Kataiki, Vitra’s honest feeling about Tsuwano High School was half-excitement and half-anxiety. Vitra has been known as a furniture maker, but it gave no prior consideration in building the whole environment. However, in terms of their experience of projects in Japanese public spaces, it was the company’s first attempt to tackle staff rooms despite the company’s track record in airport design. The Sensei Office project started with the agreement of the two companies as a new and exciting challenge.
The staff room at Tsuwano High School, which Vitra saw for the first time, was exactly like you would imagine. The 18 steel desks were divided into six people on one table, and the desk for the Head Teacher was set up on the end overlooking all the faculty members. The teachers did all their work at their own desks, and when students came to talk, they placed small chairs between teachers. As a result, sensitive conversations were subject to everyone present in the room. Furthermore, even in an environment with so many documents, due to the school budget other restrictions, it was difficult to completely go paperless.
Former staff room at Tsuwano high school
Requirements: Teacher-led Workshop
Mr. Kataiki felt that the staff room at the time, although an efficient space, had multiple issues that needed to be sorted out. The staff room only had desks and as a result, everything that has to be done has to be done on one desk. There was some uneasiness that there was no way to improve the efficiency of work hours, but the workshops led by teachers and interviews with students brought a breakthrough.
Discussion and workshop of the Sensei Office project led by teachers
At the workshop, Principal Osama Kumagai and other teachers thought about how to create a good space. Persistent issues such as no wireless options, no space, and no boundaries had been carefully discussed. In a questionnaire for students, there were many issues concerning communication like, “It is difficult to enter the staff room,” and, “I am worried about other people watching.”
Through that process, the goals of the Sensei Office were summarized as follows:
- Improve the quality of work (Easy to work, can concentrate, can choose a place）
- Improve the quality of communication (Easy to work with around）
- Improve the quality of student engagement (Easy to face, easy to talk）
- Prepare an environment that takes health and mental aspects into consideration
Construction: Spatial Design Aimed to Produce Four Objectives
The Sensei Office, which was created based on the above four purposes, has been remodeled as follows:
1. Teacher and Student Areas Separated by Furniture Maintains Privacy and Improves Communication
Since the Sensei Office is a space open not only to faculty but also to students, Vitra placed the “system” furniture (Level 34) in front of the staff room entrance. One space was slightly separated without making walls, with the back as the teacher area and the front as the student area. In the teacher’s area, they aimed to improve work efficiency and performance as well as maintaining privacy. In the student area, the students can enter the staff room casually with the aim of creating an environment where they could easily communicate with their teachers.
Level 34 is office furniture made on a 34cm high bench. The raised furniture can serve as a counter for students to talk to their teachers, or it can serve as a stand-by for students when the teacher is busy with another person, and it can also serve as a visual divider to keep important information such as exam papers hidden from peeping eyes. It also works for zoning student spaces from teachers’ and for storage under the counter. At the workshop, at the request of the faculty, a counter like a government office was considered. However, Vitra, who did not want a simple yet disruptive partition, adopted this product to provide more openness and multi-functionality.
For the task of students finding it “difficult to enter the staff room,” which was raised as an issue in the staff room in the past, a part of the space was opened to the outside as a student area as shown below, so that circulation with the outside was created.
In our general image in Japan, the staff room has never been a place for students to feel free to enter in the first place. I remember when teachers and students had one-on-one interviews in a classroom where no one was present. Nevertheless, the reason for making the Sensei Office a space that is easy for students to enter is the result of Tsuwano High School’s attitude toward education, which promotes education aligned to student needs as a school where students can consult with teachers on a daily basis.
In the student area, besides interacting with staff, teachers can post information they want to convey to students, including the recruitment of exchange students and communicating daily matters via whiteboard. In addition, by placing items that students come to pick up often, the space was devised to make it easy for students to go in and out daily.
Work efficiency is improved by changing the desk size + ergonomic chairs allow you to use the space freely
Kataiki thought that the existing desk space in the teacher area was already efficient, but it has become even more effective by rearranging the size and arrangement of the desks as well as the surrounding environment. The original desk surface had a width of 1100mm and length of 850mm height, so the length was reduced, and the width of the desk was increased to 1400mm to allow computer and paperwork to be done simultaneously.
In addition, the new office chairs introduced featured an ergonomic design. Compared to conventional office chairs, the simple design is impressive, compact, and easy to move with top-notch comfort. Plus, the chairs match the fluidity of the space intended by Sensei Office.
Organizing the large amount of documents in the staff room and clearing the space was also effective. The documents were divided into three categories: personal, team, and non-everyday use. The storage space in the staff room could be reduced to half by placing or disposing of #1: personal documents in the wagon under the personal desk, #2: team documents for storage on the wall, and other #3: non-everyday documents in the storage area outside the staff room. The fact that documents are no longer placed in the line of sight on desks is a major improvement in managing information.
The new space created by organizing the documents includes a space for teachers to meet, talk with students, take a break or lunch, and also created a shared space used by the coordinator for whatever needs arise.
2. Three Spaces You Can Choose – To Do Office/School Work, Collaborate, or Focus
In the working space, students can concentrate on their work by using personal desks. In the collaborative space, they can meet with their peers and teachers, and in the intensive or focus space, teachers can interact with their students.
While it was possible to do all the work from one’s desk in the former staff room, but there was no space to meet with specific people – a perfect example of why one of the issues was to improve the quality of communication between teachers. At Sensei Office, a number of spaces where you can have small meetings at any time were prepared, as shown in the image below. In addition, spaces for easy collaboration was provided, such as the concentration booth shown below.
The most frequently cited request by students for a new staff room was to set up a space where students could talk calmly and privately with teachers. To ensure that privacy and, at the same time, obey the rules that they must be open, the booth was set up.
Vitra – Workbays
The walls are made of sound-absorbing, compressed felt panels that allow students to interact with the teacher without distraction or fear of eavesdropping. The intensive focus space can be used for personal intensive work, highly confidential meetings between teachers, and for relaxing meals and breaks.
3. Prepare an Environment that Takes Physical and Mental Health Aspects into Consideration
Upon realizing what kind of work style reform was needed for the faculty, Kataiki stated, “I want to reduce [their] mental busyness and the overall feeling of being busy.”
As a result, plants and greenery were introduced to the staff room. Moreover, the combination of white and green in a working space was taken as a measure to enhance mental relaxation. In recent years, biophilic design has been introduced in many offices and is attracting attention as an important factor in promoting the wellness of employees, as well as creating a peaceful office space with natural colors.
With these measures in place, the Sensei Office was completed in April 2019 and is now in the process of implementation and improvement.
Operation Start: The Appeal of Sensei Office Revealed Through Data Collection
They compiled the school’s feelings and feedback after one month of use. Spaces tailored to the way teachers work have gradually shown the following results.
Improved habits and work efficacy
Among the numerous feedback points, the first things said were, “I got accustomed to throwing away paper as much as possible,” “I got rid of the materials saved, or saved them in PDF,” “I never used to put things away.” It seems that teachers had become accustomed to keeping their environment organized.
The organized spaces directly affected the work efficiency of the teachers. They even said that the increased space on the desk made it easier to work and meet with students. In fact, teachers who had shelves on their personal desks found it easy to quickly find and put away textbooks.
Moreover, the well-organized environment was effective not only around the desk but also in the use of the whole space. “There is more movement than before, and thinking about things while moving makes it easier to organize my thoughts,” said one teacher. This is an effect obtained not only by replacing furniture but also by designing the entire space.
Increased communication is one of the central aims of this project. Teachers could see each other’s faces and conversations increased. The teachers who had previously said they worked while eating, now say they eat at the booths reading newspapers and talking to other teachers.
Communication with students was also improved. It quickly became apparent that creating a space that invites students to enter easily increased the number of students visiting and increased opportunities to communicate with teachers thanks to Sensei Office.
Plus, looking at the overall data, 60% of the teachers answered that the work style itself changed significantly, but 100% of the respondents answered positively for “a comfortable working environment” and “an environment where work is quicker.” It was a major achievement that teachers were able to work in a comfortable environment while making moderate changes.
Value Beyond Data: The Opportunity for Students to Rethink Their Environment
The teachers who collaborated with outside companies to find a new staff room were clearly visible in the eyes of the students. In fact, the students were informed of the project in advance, and on the day of implementation, the students got involved. Even on the day after completion, the students gathered to celebrate with their teachers.
Now, a proposed hackathon is being prepared by students to voice their considerations and thoughts of the environment for their study area and Sensei Office. “It’s a big harvest that the students have come up with this initiative,” said Kataiki.
It may have been too natural for students to study in the environment they were given. Seeing a new environment and creating a position to question the normal environment by looking at beautiful things was a great stimulus for the students. Kataiki deepens his argument that seeing things with no prior basis and developing an aesthetic sense should be a valuable experience in assessing their own working environments once the students become working members of society. He also said that this is the reason why today’s Japanese workers are unable to draw the ideal image of their working environment. Kataiki adds that this time Tsuwano high school students will be able to work through Sensei Office and understand their environment in a way that makes sense and appeals to them.
Where Was the Secret to Success?
Sensei Office is beginning to see good results, one after another, but what’s the secret?
According to Kataiki, one of the secrets was the high level of commitment to the project by the principal and teachers from day one. Based on the agreed approach to “spend time on students,” the principal took the initiative in promoting such environmental improvements, which led to significant strides and allowed the entire school to comprehend Sensei Office’s value. He said that the staff’s passion was one of the factors that made him realize the success of the project.
The successful coexistence of digital and analog also seems to be a success factor. When it comes to changing the working environment, people usually think that digital will completely overhaul everything, but it’s important to keep elements that won’t change (analog) in order to provide value to a whole space, says Kataiki. In this example, the Sensei Office has become a digital-based space that can be accessed anywhere via a laptop. However, it also achieved its analog goal of increasing the amount of conversation between teachers and between teachers and students. In fact, despite this change, the feedback from teachers has not been enough to convince them that what they have done in the past is unacceptable.
The Future of Sensei Office
Although the Sensei Office has achieved many results, various improvements have been suggested and made by the teachers in the current improvement phase. “There’s a counter so why not remove the entrance door?” “How about making the corridor walls glass?” Critiques like, “Need to specify where and what is in the storage space,” and, “If there is a printer on each island, work efficiency will increase,” were also given. There seems to be plenty of room for further refinement in the future. I’m looking forward to seeing how the future of the office will change even more.
I would like to see the future of the Sensei Office, which continues to change in cooperation with its fascinating coordinator and partners.
Writer of this post
Kazumasa IkomaWhile working as an office manager in San Francisco, he posted numerous articles about the office designs, corporate cultures, and working styles on the West Coast. He researches what constitutes comfortable offices for companies and employees every day and puts his ideas into practice at his company.
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