Is your workspace encouraging creativity - or stifling it?

Great ideas come from both conversation and contemplation.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2018

As any great entrepreneur will tell you, there is more to success in business than having a great idea, but if you never have any ideas, you’ll never be successful. You probably won’t even survive long. After all, as markets warp under the disruptive influence of technology, it’s no longer an option to do what you’ve always done, the way you’ve always done it.

Businesses need to innovate and to do that they need to harness the creativity of their people, that priceless ability to see new in the old. But what do you do if this particular challenge leaves you scratching your head?

The most obvious response is to hire ‘creative people’. But creativity, like talent, is context-dependent. In his book The Talent Delusion, psychologist and MT regular Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points to the example of ‘genius footballer’ Lionel Messi:

‘While Messi has won an astonishing 25 titles with Barcelona, he has failed to win a single professional trophy with Argentina,’  Chamorro-Premuzic wrote. ‘Clearly, Messi’s style, personality and skills are a much better fit with Barcelona than Argentina, which is why his performance and talents are so clearly manifested with the former but not the latter team.’

Organisational culture has a profound impact on the creativity of employees and, as anyone who’s ever tried to induce cultural change will know, this is not entirely something under your control. But the good news is that employers are not powerless when it comes to nurturing a creative culture.

A central element to this is removing fear and empowering people to experiment. This can be role-modelled by leaders and built into processes, as Ed Catmull did while building Pixar with Steve Jobs in the 1990s.

‘[Catmull] puts huge emphasis on developing a culture of candour at Pixar so that its staff can be open and honest with each other,’ said film producer Michael Rose in his review of Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. ‘For example, he instigated a "Braintrust" – regular peer review sessions of creative work in progress, with rules to ensure that direct, constructive feedback is given, which allows recipients to find solutions themselves.’

The physical environment in which we work also directly impacts our creativity. In part, this is because some spaces are more ‘inspirational’ than others – you’re more likely to have a great idea (or indeed, just to think clearly) on a walk through a forest than sitting at your desk under the painful crackle of a halogen light, with your manager peering over your shoulder.

But it’s also because smart design reduces stress - which can present a significant barrier to creativity - and fosters collaboration. The simple fact is that most good ideas come from conversation rather than middle-of-the-night lightning strikes. Offices that create space for serendipitous interactions and casual chats between colleagues will therefore promote creativity.

Of course, we’re all different, which means that some will be more creative and effective in a bustling open-plan environment, and others when they have quiet time and space for reflection. The context of our particular task at hand will affect that too. All this means is that the most effective workplaces will likely combine a variety of spaces, something Lendlease calls ‘activity-based working’ (ABW), as detailed in the International Quarter London report on sedentary working, Fit for Purpose:

‘Built on the "flow theory", the concept of ABW is about creating flexible workspaces designed to facilitate individual tasks at work – for example collaborative, focused or individual working – to encourage staff to move to locations within the office that best suit the specific task at hand, rather than rely on a single desk all day long.’

Ultimately, you won’t be able to make your people more creative just by changing where they work. But you might be able to let them be more creative, by creating the right conditions, both cultural and physical. If our future really does depend on our creativity, we need to give it space to breathe. 

Image credit: Urfin/Shutterstock