Learning Differences and What They Mean for Workplace Strategy

This is the first in a three part series by Arnold Levin, a principal on the workplace strategies team at SmithGroupJJR, examining the relationship between one’s learning style, work style, and their importance to the development of meaningful workplace design strategies. Read part two of the series here and part three here.

Image via Death to Stock.

Image via Death to Stock.

In this first article, I’ll begin by framing the problem, exploring the context, issues, needs, and gaps around the areas of learning differences along with problems with current attitudes and thinking around learning differences and relationships to workplace strategies. We’ll explore how too much emphasis has been placed on using trends and benchmarking as substitutes for meaningful research, and how understanding and identifying the elusive productivity factor in workplace design can best be explained through the lens of articulating the relationship between learning styles and work styles, and how one’s learning styles actually inform ones work styles, resulting in an individual’s workplace performance.

Developing workplace strategies around trends or benchmarking has always been of great concern to me. Many clients want to know what the latest trends in workplace design are, what others in their industry are doing. Workplace designers have been all too accommodating in providing this data and information, often at the expense of better research into how to quantify performance and uncovering more substantial information that better connects a particular workplace design strategy to an organization’s performance.

I have watched as our profession has used trends, best practices, and benchmarking as “research” rationalizations for guiding clients into making decisions on what form of workplace design strategy would be most appropriate for their organization. I believe it has been one of the greatest shortcomings of the design and workplace strategy profession and has resulted in the commodification of our profession, as well as missed opportunities in making substantial connections between these design strategies and a business case for adopting them. This concern led me to go back to graduate business school to search for a more substantive way to actually frame workplace strategies as a business case, free of trends and fads.

There’s a fundamental flaw in thinking around how individuals behave and are most effective in the workplace.

Yet in many ways, despite two graduate business degrees in design management and organizational design, I, like many of my colleagues, operated under a fundamental flaw in thinking around how individuals behave and are most effective in the workplace. Despite working with clients and organizations for over 45 years in developing workplace design strategies, up until a number of years ago I assumed that one’s ability to be collaborative, or how one engages in highly focused or concentrative work, was a matter of assuming certain attitudes and personal preferences towards where one engages in these work activities. Even with the discussions around introverts needing more private spaces for focus work, I was and remain somewhat skeptical that introverts might not be better served by encouraging participation in a more collaborative work environment in order to better draw them into team functions.

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Image courtesy of the author.

My teenage daughter changed my mindset, re-framed my thinking, and opened up an entirely new way of understanding an immensely overlooked notion around how we should be understanding how individuals work most effectively and therefore what types of work environments best support those individuals. In third grade she was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, two forms of learning differences that caused frustration, anxiety, and distress in her educational performance and school life.

After three years (from pre-school to second grade) of not understanding why she was not reading like her peers or adapting to memorizations of simple nursery rhymes and spelling, and despite a high IQ, my wife and I discovered the cause was learning differences or learning disabilities (LD).

After the diagnosis, my daughter was fortunate to have been accepted at The Lab School of Washington, a school specializing in innovative and creative ways of teaching children with similar learning differences, many of whom would be ignored in conventional schools with conventional learning environments. Yet, with the proper support systems, my daughter and her peers would be fully capable to function and thrive in higher education later in their learning career. (I will discuss more about The Lab School and what workplace can learn from it in my next article).

My daughter is now beginning her third year in college after having been accepted in all five of her top choice schools, despite the statistics of students with LD not going on to higher education, particularly college and university.

I attribute much of her success with what she learned while at The Lab School (along with her tenacity). As she grew and went from The Lab School to intermediary support schools, on to a mainstream high school, and now college, she maintained a support system that allowed her to make use of certain tools and work settings to enable her to compensate for her LD. The tools included sitting in front of the classroom to better focus on her teachers, being provided with written notes of class lectures to allow her to also focus on what her teachers were discussing, wearing headphones, and being allowed to take tests in a private room in order to mask distractions.

There is a relationship between learning styles and work styles which we have for the most part been ignoring in our assessment of organizations and work modes.

Most importantly, what The Lab School taught her in order to function in the mainstream world was to recognize how she learned: identifying what her learning style was and how to advocate for herself to obtain the tools and learning environment that would enable her to receive information according to her learning style. My breakthrough moment came a number of years ago when I realized that if my daughter were to seek out a career that would place her in any of the open work environments that we in this industry were advocating based on openness transparency and collaboration, she would have difficulty in being effective and productive. She would suffer the same frustrations that led her to be diagnosed with LD in the first place, unless these work environments provided her with similar options and opportunities that she had while in school.

By looking at work environments through my daughter’s eyes, I also began to recognize the importance of understanding learning styles as a means to better understand work styles and ultimately what types and forms of work environments best support these work styles. One of the primary things I learned is that there is a relationship between learning styles and work styles. We’ve, for the most part, been ignoring it in our assessment of organizations and work modes. We look at focus work, collaboration, and social interaction, and we make distinctions between introverts and extroverts, yet these over simplifications of work styles falls short of truly identifying the breadth of work styles that exist within individuals and in the workplace.

One of the important things my daughter learned at The Lab School was the need to recognize her learning style and seek out tools and environments that best support those learning styles. These learning styles include auditory, sensory, kinetic, and visual ways of learning. Depending on where one is within this spectrum will result in differing approaches to the environments and tools one needs.

How we learn evolves into how we work, yet once we leave school and enter the workforce these learning styles are for the most part ignored and not taken into consideration.

But it is not just individuals with LD who are influenced by learning styles. All of us have a learning style that can be categorized within those four frameworks and which will result in the work styles we adapt as adults. How we learn evolves into how we work, yet once we leave school and enter the workforce these learning styles are for the most part ignored and not taken into consideration. One is told where to collaborate and where to engage in focus work. We assume we all collaborate the same and do focus work the same. Yet, these work modes are different for each of us depending on our learning style. Why can some people do focus work in the middle of Starbucks with music, noise and activities in the background, while others find it impossible to do focus work even with minimal distractions? Collaboration is all about sharing ideas and information. It’s dependent on how we process information and interact with colleagues, yet we have ignored that learning styles and work styles are all about how we process this information differently as individuals.

My hypothesis is that we need to better understand the range of work styles that exist in an organization based on learning styles. We also need to be more cognizant and aware of the breadth of issues around learning differences, and how they impact productivity and effectiveness in work. We also must recognize how the workplace can truly be a driving force in mitigating this problem and ultimately resulting in that so called “high performance workplace”.

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Images courtesy of the author.

My awareness of this conflict resulted in my doing some research on the breadth of learning differences in our society and its impact in our workplaces. In a data driven world, here are some startling statistics that should inform our thinking around the design strategies of our workplace environments:

  • One in five individuals has some form of learning difference, resulting in learning differences that — with the proper support systems — will allow individuals to fully function in mainstream organizations (U.S. Department of Education).
  • This affects some 10 to 15 million Americans alone (Washington Post). An incredible statistic. Yet most organizations do not recognize these differences as a source of effectiveness and productivity. This is partially due to ignorance on the subject, and partially due to the unfortunate fact that the majority of individuals with LD do not speak openly about it to their employers and colleagues for fear of not being hired, promoted, or given equal opportunities — despite the fact that LD falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • A study by the University of Connecticut followed 500 graduates, all of whom acknowledged having LD. One-hundred percent had disclosed these differences at university, but by the time they entered the workforce, only 55 percent disclosed their LD to employers. Of these, only 12 percent requested some form of accommodations. More incredibly, 20 percent of these individuals experienced some form of negative consequences as a result of this disclosure.

While most often diagnosed in childhood, LD is not outgrown in adulthood. More importantly, it is about processing issues: verbal, writing, assimilating information, and relaying information, all of which are critical components of a knowledge workforce being driven by a need to innovate more, break down siloes, and where collaboration is highly valued and is increasingly becoming mainstream as a perquisite for creativity and innovation. However, these very same processing attributes impact individuals without LD, as well. These attributes are equally impacted by everyone’s learning styles and, therefore, their work styles.

How we develop workplace design strategies to take all of this into consideration should be where we as strategists and designers direct our focus, instead of relying on fads, trends, and benchmarking. Learning from LD (both from what is being creating in schools focusing on LD, as well as how individuals with LD best operate in the world), and recognizing that work styles are directly informed by learning styles will allow us in the design profession to begin a discourse with our clients to uncover how this impacts their organization and ultimately the design strategies we develop for them.

This is the first in a three part series exploring the connection between learning styles and work styles. Read part two here and part three here.

1 Comment

  • Arnold, This is a really excellent article that you have brought to our attention – I am looking forward to reading the following two parts. Thank-you, it is very thought provoking and will start some great conversations

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