As part of the professional business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, Illinois State University sophomore Zach Kriegler sometimes is tasked with meeting prospective members.

Lately, Kriegler’s favorite spot for these information sessions is the State Farm Hall of Business’s new collaboration space. The tech-friendly addition to the College sits just off the lower-level atrium.

“It’s really an inviting space. It’s popular with a lot of business students, especially because it’s right here in the building and you don’t need to reserve it,” said Kriegler, sitting at a table with fellow finance major Matthew Maderas.

“It’s a natural choice,” for working on a team project, said Maderas, because it has larger tables and display monitors, plus it’s not far from the building’s bistro.

Funded through the ISU Provost Enhancement Fund, the $100,000-renovation faced several delays, but it’s been worth the wait, said Jeff Grabb, executive director of Technology and Facilities for COB.

Highlights include a variety of work areas—from long rectangular tables set perpendicular to wall-mounted monitors to round high-top tables backed by marker-ready whiteboards. Modern lighting is tailored to computer screens.

Crews unveiled the finished project this summer, along with a separately funded initiative that brings student-focused tech updates to hallways and other open areas of the building. 

The 118,000-square-foot State Farm Hall is one of ISU’s newest academic buildings, opening in 2005. “This is an amazing building. But we still need to keep moving forward and keeping it up to date,” said Dr. Tamra Connor, associate dean of Accreditation and Operations for the College. This collaboration space reflects that, she said.

“Many of the jobs in the corporate world are done in teams—cross-functional, interdisciplinary teams,” she said. Creating a variety of new workspaces, adapted to harness today’s technology, is just one way the college can prepare business students for post-graduation settings.

“We kind of mimic what they will potentially see in the real world,” said Connor. It gives students a work area to brainstorm and socialize. But it also brings ports for charging laptops and phones, comfortable lighting, and big screens to share information back and forth, said Connor.

“This is an amazing building. But we still need to keep moving forward and keeping it up to date,” said Dr. Tamra Connor, associate dean of Accreditation and Operations for the College. This collaboration space reflects that, she said.

Dr. Tamra Connor, Associate Dean of Accreditation and Operations

The new lower-level area builds on an already popular idea: State Farm Hall has nine team rooms—available on a first-come, first-served, basis. “Those turned out to be very popular. In fact, that actually was one of the driving factors behind these new developments,” said Grabb.

But the new spot is more like several team rooms-in-one.

“This generation works differently,” he said. So, while this renovation might sound simply like sprucing up, “it legitimately is focused on the students, how to leverage teamwork into their academic process,” said Grabb.

COVID shutdown first delays then allows renovation

The College of Business had wanted to create the space for several years. Budget shuffling caused some delays. “But it finally was on the calendar, and COVID hit,” said Connor. A campus shutdown meant another delay.

Eventually, Grabb’s staff tackled the project, taking advantage of the pandemic’s remote classes in spring 2021 to complete work in what would normally have been a high-traffic area.

Workers constructed the collaboration space into a corner of the atrium that previously had been available as study areas, but wasn’t as inviting, said Grabb. “It was like a cave,” he said. The crew removed a wall, making an open floor plan.

The new LED lighting is a subtle, but important part of the upgrade, too. It’s made for areas using a lot of screens. Covered by cloth, the lights showcase a modern technique that creates the illusion of infinite upward domes.

Facilities also put monitors above the conference tables, so groups can share information visually.

ISU senior marketing major Catherine Coffey said such large monitors ease communication during team projects —whether academic or extracurricular.

Without those wall-mounted screens, sharing content from a laptop can be tedious, she explained. Typing is interrupted as the laptops turned slowly around for each participant to see. “With the monitor, it’s already up there for everyone,” she said. 

Pop-up collaboration spaces

Besides the main collaboration space, the college also has unveiled changes in the building’s public spaces, made possible with academic enhancement fees.

Now, the four-story building’s halls and atrium space are peppered with modern red and grey smart furniture. Many of the benches and chairs are outfitted with a  number of plug-ins and ports. Some also incorporate laptop platforms. Downstairs in the busy atrium, Grabb’s staff added a variety of seating options, plus more electric outlets, and several wall-mounted monitors.

“We’ve really been putting some thought into small spaces, for students to get together and have comfortable seating,” said Connor. “It wasn’t uncommon before to see students sitting on the floor, working on their laptops as they waited outside their professor’s door,” she said.

“In the past, students would have had to go to a computer lab or Milner Library. But in more recent years, they already were staying here and working in between classes,” said Connor. “We have the bistro, so they don’t even have to leave for food or coffee.”

That sounds about right to Coffey. On many days, the senior arrives at COB before 9 a.m. and does not leave until late afternoon or early evening. She likes to work on assignments sitting in one of the team rooms, or in the building’s atrium.

Even Maderas and Kriegler, a freshman and sophomore respectively, say they try to spend time each day in the College of Business building, despite many of their classes being spread across campus.

Maderas said he often snags one of the cozy armchairs, bought with those academic enhancement funds, and takes in the COB. He opens his laptop, and preps for class while chatting with passersby. “It’s a good way to network, and meet other business majors,” he said.

Connor said she hopes these new spaces bring comfort and technology, but also collegiality.

“I hope our students build memories here. As they leave ISU, I want them to remember the connections and the skills they also learned outside of the classrooms,” she said.

“I want these spaces to be where they’re building their professional network, and I hope that they stay in touch with their colleagues as they go through their careers,” she said.