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How office environment impacts creativity

by | Feb 26, 2015

One of the best ways to ignite some creative fireworks is to get out of overly-familiar, boring work environments and try somewhere new. It’s something I’ve seen the benefits of first-hand on numerous occasions: being somewhere different is an easy way to stimulate everyone and can lead to fresh ideas and it’s usually pretty easy to accomplish. Think having a meeting in the park rather than the boardroom, or over lunch rather than huddled round the boss’ desk. It really can be that simple. When was the last time you had a great idea sitting at your desk? In between answering emails, being nabbed at your desk for a quick chat or the minute you put the phone down on your client/boss/customer? Probably not.

Over the past decade and a bit, more and more companies have tried to make their offices a bit different, too, the thinking being that if you can make your work environment seem less “worky”, there’s no need to leave in search of outside stimuli. The idea has some merits, but those play-slides, pool tables and giant games of Jenga can only hold the illusion that work = fun for so long. I contributed to an article for the BBC online about some of the funkiest offices out there last year and what the impact is on creativity.

I was however taken with the idea of a huge ball pit in Hammersmith created by London and New York-based design agency Pearlfisher. Hailed as an “Interactive winter art installation” entitled JUMP IN! it has been a big hit and ended up being completely fully booked. It looks like great fun – all 81,000 balls of it – and as a break from the office I’m sure it will have been hard to top. Pearlfisher say it was aimed at “Highlighting the importance of play in promoting creativity, its transformative power, and the future of ‘work being play.’” And whilst it may also have been a stunt for the agency I think it was a good creative one! But part of its power probably lies in the fact that it was only there for a month and it was a ‘novelty’.

There’s a whole series of blogs that could be written on the subject of play and unleashing your inner child, but what leaped to mind was something I stumbled across recently in Psychology Today. It was a fascinating little snippet about how the ‘inner child’ that we often think of as being ultra creative and something we want to get in touch with, is not necessarily as creative as we might think.

The story focused on the work of American Psychologist Ellen Winner who found that children were most creative during their pre-school years. Specifically, she discovered that their similes were pretty ‘out there’ when they were three or four – “As quiet as a magic marker”, for example – but that once kids started at school they tended to say “as quiet as a mouse”, just like everyone else.

Extrapolating from all this, I would argue that fun work environments, the quest to find the inner child and all the rest of it are only going to provide tangible results if you know how to foster a creative culture including behaviours that support creativity as well as the infrastructure. You could build the ultimate office – hey, why not actually design it like Ticketmaster, add a slide and claim the ‘cool workspace’ crown outright? – but without the right attitude, the right leadership and the right structure, the chances of creative gold being spun there are slim.  Whilst most of us may look at ‘creative’ offices and think they look great, the chances are the stimuli may end up just being wallpaper as people get over the novelty of it – and office refurbs are not cheap!  And the line between useful stimuli and money-wasting jazz hands BS can be a thin one.

What I find works well as a long-term solution is to keep teams trying new experiences. A group trip to a comedy gig – especially one that’s still raw, something of a work in progress – is a good example; so too is an art exhibition (the more left-field the better) or a TED-style talk. Even just a walk outside. For creativity, diversity is the name of the game – be it people, environments or ways of thinking. Studies have shown just switching between tasks can aid your creative output, and Stanford University’s study shows the impact of a walk outside on creativity. You can read my experience of practicing what I preach, getting outside and undertaking a ‘choreographed walk‘ here.

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