In the pilot episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, two computer programmers drily note that “the marketing team is having another bike meeting” as a group of workers ride tandem bikes by the entrance of the fictional tech start-up Hooli. The programmers then enter a modern building with a campus-like layout, plenty of open spaces for employees to meet, and perks such as a well-stocked snack & drink bar.
Obviously, the show is satirizing the lengths that many modern companies have gone to in order to boost their employees’ creativity through their work environment, but while some of design choices made by Silicon Valley companies may seem a bit over the top, there’s also some truth to the idea that an office’s design can drive innovation.
The Action Office, which gave rise to the office layout often referred to as the ‘cubicle farm,’ has fallen out of grace in the last decade in favor of the open-office design. The goal of this wall-less design is to improve communication, increase collaboration, and create a mentally stimulating work environment. The design has become so popular that an estimated 70% of all US offices now have an open floor plan.
Of course, just removing the cubicles from an office isn’t enough to inspire greater creativity and stimulate workers. In fact, some people working in open offices bemoan the lack of privacy and cite the design as a major distraction. For an office design to be truly successful, it must cater to a variety of different work styles and create an environment that’s stimulating but not distracting. To determine the best way to do that, let’s look at what we know about creativity and then go over some design ideas that may help promote inventiveness.
While ‘creativity’ is a subjective label, we have learned some things about the ways innovative ideas are generated. We know that our brains are not actually divided into logical (left hemisphere)and creative (right hemisphere), but that many different regions of the brain are activated when we’re being creative, including the regions responsible for daydreaming, thinking about the future, remembering emotional memories, and social cognition. Nobody is a ‘right-brain thinker’ or ‘left-brain thinker,’ and creativity is embedded in each and every one of us.
We also know that coming up with an innovative idea is a process of putting together existing ideas into a new perspective. According to James Wbeb Young, author of A Technique for Producing Ideas, you can train your brain to make these new connections by getting in the habit of collecting information all around you and setting aside sufficient time to process creative ideas.
The purpose of many modern office designs is to provide workers with the inspirational material necessary to come up with revolutionary ideas. Employees at Pixar’s headquarters, for example, work in a whimsical environment inspired by the company’s films and can meet with colleagues from other departments in a central atrium set up for casual conversations and unplanned collaborations.
Pixar’s office is a good place to pull design ideas from, but companies don’t necessarily need to have a large physical space or a huge budget in order to create an office designed to inspire creativity. Read on for several design ideas that businesses of any size can implement.
Let employees add personal design touches. The walls and open spaces of Pinterest’s headquarters are decorated with one-of-a-kind found objects, unusual trinkets, and photos or art projects created by the company’s employees. This gives the office a crafty, lived-in feel that fits with the company’s brand, and it gives employees plenty of visual material to draw inspiration from. Employee-contributed decorations also help build a workplace culture, which encourages people to get to know each other and collaborate on their ideas.
Let employees choose how they want to work. No employee is exactly the same as another, and not everyone thrives professionally in exactly the same work environment. Many top companies have started setting up different ‘zones’ within their office, such as an open space for collaboration (such as Pixar’s atrium) and quieter spaces where employees can go to focus and be distraction-free. You can also give employees more freedom to control their workspace by offering them adjustable desks, so that they can sit or stand along with wheeled chairs and filing cabinets that can be easily moved.
Embrace nature. Research has shown that people are able to be more creative when they can put distance between themselves and the problem they’re trying to solve, the space allowing them to think more abstractly. One way to apply this practically in an office environment is to set up an area that looks nothing like an office, such as a space with lots of plants and natural light, or even an outdoor courtyard where employees can go to brainstorm. This will allow workers to escape from the constraints of a normal workspace and consider ideas from a fresh perspective.
Throw out assigned seats. More and more businesses are foregoing seating assignments in favor of letting employees choose where they want to sit every day, whether that’s a desk or a couch or even a bench seat in the company’s cafeteria. Other companies still assign their employees to desks, but change the seating arrangement every few months in order to encourage collaborations between people who might not have interacted otherwise.
Allow for fully customized workspaces. If you’re currently using cubicles and aren’t ready to switch over to an open-office layout, you can still promote employee happiness and creativity simply by allowing workers to customize their workspace. That could mean anything from putting up wallpaper and family photos to bringing in a pet, whatever will make the employee feel most comfortable. Several major companies, including Pixar and Cartoon Network, still use cubicles at their headquarters, but because they turn those cubicles into a personalized environment and also provide plenty of open collaborative spaces, they set up an environment that’s both productive and creative.
Lynne Lemieux, Founder and President of Alliance Interiors Inc., has devoted more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing growth opportunities for some of Canada's leading office furniture dealers. Her ability to provide clients with inspiring and versatile interior solutions for both business and home office environments has garnered her title of Aboriginal Business Woman of the Year in the city of Toronto for 2012. In her spare time, Lynne takes an active interest in politics, public speaking, and philanthropy, but also enjoys gardening, interior decorating, cooking, yoga, and traveling.