Creativity is a process that in the workplace can be both solitary and collaborative that needs a range of spaces. Organising the office around departmental lines will not deliver the most appropriate spaces for your creative collaborators. You need to consider the type of work each person is doing and provide flexibility for both the loud and the focused in your business.

Sound in the office is very varied in source and type. From air con systems, whirring printers, music (sometimes different tracks coming from different places and overlapping somewhere in the middle), and of course, the babble of conversation – some clear and some unintelligible, some two-sided and some the result of phone or video calls.

And depending on where you happen to be in the office – and what task you’re currently undertaking - your personal perception of these sounds will be different from all your colleagues.

International architecture firm, Arup, carried out research that shows the perception of sound also depends on the personality of the recipient and the type of work they are doing. Those engaged in analysis and focus work are more likely to be distracted by extraneous noise than those more used to creative or collaborative tasks.

The Arup report makes the point that organising office seating by function – putting all the IT people together for example - may not be conducive for productivity. If some of those people are support-deskers, constantly on the phone dealing with problems, and others are software programmers, a task that needs focus and concentration, then you have inadvertently introduced dissonance into your team’s workspace.

So, how do you cater for the creative collaborators in an open office when a good number of task-focused employees are trying to work in the same space?

A clue to part of the answer is the example above about the IT team. Think about the actual job each person does, rather than simply the team or functional area in which they sit and start to organise around those facets as a starting point.

But then what? If your office has been designed with an overall objective of reducing noise then it may have quieter air con, feature noise absorbing materials on walls, ceilings and floors, maybe even some moveable partitions, but these are solutions to a problem that only exists for some of the people in the space – and probably only for some of the time.

For a truly flexible working environment, thoughts should first turn to individual employee functions and the psychosocial aspects of their day – the combined impacts of environment, task, social context and mood.

Also under consideration should be organisational aspects and what objectives are being sought within the confines of any one space. It doesn't matter how large that space may be and how many teams occupy it, think objectives first.

But then comes ‘flexible architecture’.

This is the use of furniture and other large elements to define distinct functional areas from the broader administrative or day-to-day areas of the space – but with some degree of mobility as requirements change.

Keystone for quiet Creativity
Keystone Pod

The Lightbulb Moment is a Process

If you want to foster creative collaboration, you should firstly know why and understand why it has become a necessity in an increasingly specialised world.

Adam Smith, an 18th century pioneer of political economy, formulated a theory which essentially created the production line, well in advance of Henry Ford’s 1913 factory assembly process. Smith looked at the manufacture of pins and realised that if each person performed just one of the 18 actions needed to produce a finished pin, then the factory could substantially increase its output.

This was the start of specialisation in the workplace, which today has permeated every department in every business. Marketers are now digital marketers, CRM experts, marketing analysts, brand marketers, performance marketers and on. HR managers have specialisms in people management, wellbeing, internal communications, learning and development and so on.

As a result of this specialism, creativity as a solo pursuit is less useful than collaborative creativity: collaboration, where there is a shared outcome as opposed to co-operation, where there may only be an outcome owned by one person.

Once you have decided why, you will need to understand how creativity happens.

Psychologists will tell you there are four or five stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination and then evaluation and verification, which could be a single or two separate stages.

These stages need very different environments and states of mind to work

Stage 1: Preparation

It takes thought and focus to formulate an initial idea. But then also brainstorming or ideation sessions to build on that start and to give it some direction. These two parts require two very different spaces.

The first will need a quieter, calmer workmanlike space for research and the gathering of assets and data. A degree of separation, without being isolated from the team may help too. Perhaps the flexibility for ‘meerkat collaboration’ will help – the ability to pop your head up to ask a pertinent question of a colleague.

Park Pod
Park Pod - Separation without Isolation - and Meerkat Collaboration

But many creatives need complete solitude. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak says: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists….and artists work best alone — best outside corporate environments…”

So, you need to consider how to provide that non-corporate space for your best creative thinkers. The introduction of biophilic design principles here could work wonders.

Studies have shown creativity increases of 15% where the natural world is represented in the workplace.

The second part of the preparation stage though will require a collaborative space, where a group can gather and throw ideas and thoughts around like tennis balls. Seating may be optional – or is a mix of beanbags or other soft seating, round-table seating and standing tables to cater for all tastes and moods.

Pixar-Living Area
Pixar Collaboration Space for Creative Collaboration

A fully enclosed meeting room is not always the best option to encourage open minds. To avoid disturbing others a brainstorming space is best located away from main open-plan office areas. Choose an open space in or off wide corridors or transition spaces. Common areas can also work well – and can sometimes feed off the energy or ideas of people passing through.

Steve Jobs used this method in Apple’s first HQ in Cupertino. He included a large atrium in the centre of the building, through which everyone had to pass at some point. This is where he and his team thrashed out new ideas, pulling other employees into conversations as they happened to pass through. He also took that principle to Pixar’s headquarters – possibly the epitome of a creative space.

Again, in line with biophilic design principles, this area should be airy, well ventilated, have views of the outdoors if possible – and so have natural light - and feature natural analogues (patterns, natural colours, flowing lines) and some form of planting. With the use of nature in the space alongside these natural features, you can start to create the nature of the space - where characteristics of the natural world (refuge or mystery, prospect or risk) can develop, further enhancing free and creative thinking.

It will also need great connectivity and plenty of whiteboard, or blackboard space and somewhere to put sticky notes. Having mobile units for this purpose is ideal as they can be wheeled around the space as required.

A flexible communication unit like Roam is perfect for ideation

Include a range of seating and table space. Stand-up tables are great for maintaining engagement levels and getting people closer together as they talk and plan. But also, the use of soft seating such as sofas makes an ideal place for breaks, or somewhere to recuperate as others work through particular points.

Lastly, acoustics are vital in this space. As before, not to reduce noise overall, but to manage the sound and allow everyone to be heard and to hear. Overhead or pendant acoustic solutions take up otherwise vacant space and, if large enough, can define sub-areas within the wider space without any human-level separation.

Stage 2: Incubation

For incubation you need to let your idea go and let your mind focus on anything but. There is probably not a one-size-fits-all space for this – and maybe it’s not an internal space at all, but somewhere outside you need to be. Go for a walk, play a game, listen to some music or work on something entirely unrelated. Just don't dwell on your idea.

This where a hybrid work pattern could well be the best solution for your creative types.

Stage 3: Illumination

That light-bulb, eureka, a-ha moment is a function of the incubation stage and is where all of the material you have curated so far comes together. You may be able to contain all of that in your head, but ideally you will quickly be able to record this important moment somewhere you will not be disturbed and distracted from your task – but within reach of your wider team.

Stage 4/5: Evaluation and Verification

Now you will need a combination of team and individual thinking. Depending on the idea, cross-functional collaboration and consideration may be required as well as one-to-one meetings, team meetings and solo focus time.

For one-to-one meetings, semi-enclosed pods could be the way to go - again away from the wider team, but not completely isolated. Also, it’s often at this stage that a particular point needs speedy clarification, with input from a range of people. To avoid the curse of the formal meeting room sucking time away, a more informal drop-in group meeting space can be useful such as a soft multi-seat unit or a stand-up space, separated from the rest of the office with acoustic dividers.

In summary

When planning your office space:

  • Consider how your employees work best and not what their functional area is.
  • Build flexibility into your workspace with the use of furniture as flexible architecture
  • Use the principles of biophilic design to enhance creativity and collaboration.
  • Don't assume collaboration is a one-size fits all activity
Words by Paul Bondsfield
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