One of the most obvious influences on our creativity is the actual space we work and create in. None more so than the workplace, where there’s been a growing emphasis on the relationship between workspace design and innovative cultures.
Workplaces that facilitate frequent and high-quality contact have been shown to have improved communication, job satisfaction and social support. The workplace design can also be a key factor in building a sense of community across staff.
The birth of the open plan office in the 1950's was intended to provide opportunities for ideas to flow and for staff to have more collaboration. Some say it spread too quickly because it enabled more staff to located into a set amount of space and saved money on office fit outs.
There’s also increasing evidence that the positive aspects of open-plan design are traded off. They can result in more noise, less ability to focus, more distractions and errors, and overall under performance. One study found that open-plan environments compromised employees’ ability to concentrate at work.
It also found that enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of indoor environmental quality, particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics (that is, the amount of space between people). The benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were less than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.
A recent study from Harvard Business School recruited 52 employees at the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 multinational company that was about to undergo a redesign of an entire floor, stripping out the individual cubicles to create a fully open-plan workspace.
The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.
A second study involving 100 employees at another Fortune 500 company was similar but this time the researchers monitored changes to the nature of the interactions between specific pairs of colleagues before the shift to an open-plan office compared with afterwards.
The results showed face-to-face time decreased by around 70 per cent across the participating employees, on average, with email use increasing by between 22 per cent and 50 per cent.
Employees are voicing more negative views on open plan offices both in terms of lost privacy and adverse effects on communication.
A further study from Oxford Economics found that found that millennials particularly don't work well in offices with ambient noise as it distracts them from work. Many resort to strategies like wearing earphones or leaving their desks to escape the noise.
Clever workspace designs look at environments that foster creativity by:
- creating spaces for informal discussion like casual meetings spaces or where staff can leave projects in progress without worrying about the mess
- including more flexible spaces with the use of moveable walls to enable staff to experiment and collaborate as well as do independent work
- avoiding large impersonal offices that discourage information flow and discussion
- contriving spatial closeness between departments to foster contact between them
- scheduling common lunch breaks to provide more opportunities for communication and encourage interaction between staff.
The Creative Advantage: How the intersection of science and creativity reveals life’s ultimate advantage, Chapt 15.
Oxford Economics https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/when-the-walls-come-down
Grant, A. & Grant, G. (2012). Who Killed Creativity? and How Can We Get It Back? Australia, Jossey-Bass Wiley Imprint, 196.
Stevenson, N. (March 2017) IDEO, 13 ways to make your workspace more creative.