My favorite grocery store has two elements that keep me going back: positive, helpful employees, and a predictable setting. If I have to run in for 1 or 2 items, I can find them, say hi to the checker and be on my way. If they re-arrange things, they do it slowly, have staff available to help you find things, and let you get used to the new space gradually. Those two structures, the space and the interactions, allow the environment to work.
Creating a learning environment in the workplace includes setting spaces for the kinds of interactions we want to promote. I interviewed a friend who had a vibrant career as CEO of several companies. He told me he always created spaces where there was “a chalkboard, a coffee pot, and a couple of chairs” for his employees to take breaks, relax, and brainstorm with others. In this day of climbing walls, scooters, and whiteboards in workplaces encouraging creativity and innovation, what are some other considerations about space?
Another friend starts teaching at a local University this fall. He wants to put the student’s chairs in a circle to promote interaction. I asked him when he thought they were part of a circle in their past. The immediate response was kindergarten. I suggested he might have to teach his students how to participate in a circle. His expectations were that they would all contribute, take turns talking and listening, be attentive, and bring something to the conversation.
What skills are necessary for that to occur? Listening means allowing others to finish, avoiding side conversations or talking over each other, and focusing on the speaker; not an electronic device. The facilitator (manager, leader, teacher) must have specific expectations and be willing to teach and support (or enforce) those skills consistently in order for a circle to work. In schools, an object such as a talking stick is often used to remind everyone who is speaking. In the workplace, we need group agreements that are visibly posted as reminders to take turns. It sounds elementary, and it is. And, without specific agreements, a meeting can become chaos and unproductive.
One of my clients sends out a weekly “reflect & share” request to her team on Friday with a question or quote to consider. The agreement is to come to the staff meeting Monday with a contribution related to the inquiry. They begin each weekly meeting with a brief centering exercise. They sit quietly, breathing and focusing for 1 or 2 minutes to set the tone for full attention. Then, they either go around the circle and each share with the whole group for 1 minute each, or they pair up and take 1 minute each to share, practicing speaking and listening with a partner as a way to develop those skills. The message is; being present matters. And, it takes intention, attention, and practice. Both the physical environment and the group agreements are tools to support learning.
How we set the space is how we set the expectations.
Share some of your examples of learning environments that work.