How workplace design can foster creativity

The design of your workplace has the power to make us more creative, productive, and even happy.

Over a lifetime, the average British person spends 3,515 days at work – and for most, it’s spent in an office. Too often, we regard the place where we work as nothing more than the background for our professional activities. Our place of work is, in reality, a critical part of our work. A well designed workspace needs to be attuned with the needs of the people working within it, helping them express their potential and achieve their best results. Importantly, it also has the power to hinder their work if it is not a good fit.

Workplace design can play a key role in fostering creativity, shaping a company’s culture and improving productivity. It stands to reason that if you’re working in an inspiring place you will see the quality of your work improve.  However, only 13 per cent of workers worldwide are “highly satisfied” with their workplace according to a 2017 Global Report by American furniture manufacturer Steelcase. Research from Microsoft in the same year found that 41 per cent of surveyed workers in UK offices blamed uninspiring workplaces for hindering their creativity. 

Why are our offices so badly designed?

Many offices are simply outdated, designed with a top-down working culture in mind, where each team member does a stint at an isolated cubicle and hopefully ends up in an isolated corner office.

Chris Congdon, Global Research Communications at Steelcase, suggests that in today, effective workforces are made up of teammates in constant interaction.

“Current workplaces, are really getting in the way of teams working together effectively, because so much is designed around an individual sitting at a desk.”

“What we’re now seeing is a major shift, in which workplaces need to be designed around these new team units.”

As with everything, technology is playing a substantial role in the remodelling and modernisation of workspaces. Tech companies are starting to cater to interconnected teams working towards a common goal. Online collaboration platforms are allowing this teamwork; the accessibility tools built into software we use every day. Language and communication barriers are being broken down by AI, and machine learning is gathering data and delivering business insights at a speedier pace, allowing more time and energy to go towards employees developing their creative potential.

Improving your workplace

In the workplace, a shift towards creativity requires embracing flexibility. The space where employees work should be pliable to their needs, in these circumstances employees will flourish.

“[The key] is freedom to ‘tweak’ or mark the space, within reason. It needs to feel like the space belongs to everyone, reflecting the culture of the occupants,” explains Heather Martin, Head of Design at design and innovation consultancy Fjord. 

Steelcase’s Congdon agrees: “The team needs to be able to control their environment. So much of our furnishings and our technology are static, they are in one place, and it’s very difficult for teams to move things around”.

Changes to your space don’t have to be drastic, some suggestions for improvements might include smaller areas for individual work, cosy spaces for focused pair-work, and larger hubs where teammates can come together, both physically and digitally, to share ideas fluidly.

“We know that when the human voice raises above 55 decibels and somebody hears that, the spike gives an unpleasant experience and their stress hormone increase,” says John Medina, an expert in brain development and a professor at Seattle Pacific University. “[That is why] open office spaces can sometimes be a train wreck.”

“Floor to ceiling whiteboard walls in meeting rooms and project spaces allow teams to visually communicate with each other. It’s quicker, more effective and basically more fun than reading the same idea in an email,” suggests Martin.

Colours and light can have a huge impact on the general atmosphere of the workspace. “We have to think about the desired energy level and about the desired level of concentration in each space,” says Dr Sally Augustin, a design psychologist and the principal at Design With Science.

Blending design, culture and tech

Adapting towards a creative inspiring environment cannot only involve design and atmosphere. A great physical space is completely useless if its design statements are not reflected by the workplace’s culture.

“The environment has to give signals consistent with both organisational culture – and even the national and the local culture – in order for people to be in a positive mood,” Dr Augustin says. An organisation’s mindset must be gear towards this flexible paradigm.

A critical factor in the equation is technology. Having the right tools to work together can greatly enhance a team’s productivity. 

“A lot of mobile technology is available for individual use only. We have to find ways to make sure that our ideas can travel with us, can be visible to our teammates in the office,” Congdon says. “Some of the recent exciting things we are seeing are collaborative devices, instead of just static display devices.”

In a well designed company, technology, physical space and workplace culture should work in harmony to remove all barriers to communication. This technology is more and more available. Artificial Intelligence, for example is increasingly used to power key tools including speech recognition, natural language recognition, and email filtering.

“These tools won’t replace humans,” Microsoft’s Clayton says. “But, from PowerPoint design, to Skype automatic conference-call translation, to applications in healthcare and energy, AI can change the way we work – for the better.”

According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020, creativity will be one of the top three skills required from workers. Companies can foster the creative skills of their employees with the right blend of technology, culture, and workplace design.