Creative Space and Innovation DNA

When Airbnb opened its first call center in December 2014, it was featured on headlines everywhere: finally, a call center that was not a hell to work at. “Picture a call center: rows and rows of gray cubicles, everyone donning headsets, sitting at their beige desks for hours on end […] Our landing spots work a little like cubbies for kindergarteners.” To create a happy, collaborative environment, Airbnb staffers were included in the design of the workplace, translating to shared desks, couches, and lots of use of natural materials and lightning —all fun and play.

This article is part of the THNK VIEWS series. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners. This article builds on the study Do Intelligent Leaders Make a Difference? The Effect of a Leader’s Emotional Intelligence on Followers’ Creativity by Francisca Castro, Jorge Gomes and Fernando C. de Sousa.

It is hard to deny that the modern work environment is drastically changing, with playful offices like these becoming the new norm ever since Google, Facebook and others set a trend of informal and playful working environment in the hopes of boosting cultures of creativity and happiness at work. Initially exploring the effect of a leader’s emotional intelligence on followers’ creativity, Francisca Castro, Jorge Gomes and Fernando C. de Sousa find that:

  • Leader’s emotional intelligence and employee creativity are positively associated.
  • Work environment does not act as a mediating factor between leadership and employee creativity.
  • Instead, leaders play a paramount role in stimulating employee creativity.

Their findings suggest that work environment in and of itself does not make employees creative. This is not to say that space does not matter. Space matters a great deal in encouraging collaboration, social interactions, and creativity. But the current tendency of office transformation misses one vital point: you can give people a creative, happy playground space and atmosphere, but if the underlying culture, attitudes and support fail to facilitate creativity and innovation, having a table tennis table or an in-office slide is not going to give you the creativity you want.  “Happy lunch hours do not make for happy workers”, as happiness expert Nic Marks recently put it.

Space allows you to set the stage for a creative atmosphere. To do so, space must be special, separated, and personal. This requires a balancing act of playfulness versus structure, communal areas and solitary space, and creates an appreciative, yet workable atmosphere. To add, creative office space must both be flexible and scalable. This is merely a first step: once you have set the stage, the real work of creating a true culture of innovation begins.

Dutch social design agency KNOL recently conducted a spatial experiment, Out of Office, with surprising outcomes. Word got out about the new flexible workspaces, and people came flocking. Little did they know that they were part of a 30-day spatial experiment that underwent small changes each day. The space started off as a kindergarten-like office, bursting with colors, open space, and filled with couches, swings, and even its own rabbit. Slowly, the playful office space changed into a working place in the traditional sense: informal offices turned into a grid of cubicles. “We tried to find the golden mean between two extremes of freedom and control.”

This golden mean was found during the third week of the experiment, with the removal of various playful elements, a combination of desks and more to work, a set fixed rules, and supervision. Though less cozy, these setting were optimal in terms of employee satisfaction, productivity, and creativity. This implies that while people want to move away from traditional office cube environments, constructing slides in your office might not be the best way to go about achieving a culture of innovation. What is more, the preference for fixed rules, supervision, and the opportunity to both collaborate with people and retreat to your own space proved to be the best combination.

These findings, combined with our own experience at THNK, have led us to believe that the optimal creative space creates the feeling of a home base. To create such a home, the space must be special and have its own distinct identity. It should look and feel different from every other office out there. When Philip Electronics was developing the world’s first CD player in the late 1970s, its developing team was housed in a small bunker, housing hundreds of engineers and designers on a common mission to bring the first CD player to market. This meant the bunker had a very special vibe to it: it made the developing team feel they were part of something special. Second, it separated the team from the rest of the company. Third, a space must feel personal for employees: by inviting employees to add personal touches to the space, they gain a sense of ownership over it. This, too, turns mere office space into a creative home.

Creating a space that is both an office and home base requires the balancing of 3 things:

  • Find a balance between play and structure
  • Design collaborative and solitary spaces
  • Create an appreciative yet workable atmosphere

The first links back to playful working. No one wants to work in a one-by-one cubicle set in an ocean of grey walls. At the same time, some sense of structure is needed that the office does not turn into an actual kindergarten. As the Out of Office experiment shows, people actually prefer to have clear structure and supervision —so long as some sense of freedom and playfulness remains.

Second, the experiment indicates that people want spaces of collision, that allow for interaction and collaboration, as well as spaces to which they can retreat and work by themselves. In anothersocial experiment, an entrepreneur bought two buildings next to each other, renting one out to artists and the other to lawyers. The entrepreneur first provided a physical infrastructure for the two offices to interact by linking the buildings through a bridge. However, true interaction and mixing did not happen until the entrepreneur encouraged the lawyers and artists to organize and host events jointly —birthdays, coffee dates etc. Only then did they truly start talking to and learning from one another.

In addition to collision and interaction, office design should also offer space to retreat. After her widely acclaimed TedTalk Quiet: the Power of IntrovertsSusan Cain teamed up with Steelcase to design offices for introverts. Their claim was that open office settings might work for some people, but others need calm and alone time to concentrate and get work done. Creating separate spaces will make people feel they are still part of the group.

Third, office space needs to be appreciative and workable.  Employees will be excited to go to a pleasant office and atmosphere that radiates that they are welcomed and valued.  At the same time, a place of innovation is a working studio where things are being built, so crystal chandeliers will not work.

In addition to these three balancing acts, any creative space should be flexible and scalable. Flexibility, an important design principle, allows employees to move things around when the situation so requires. At THNK, all furniture can be moved around and turned upside down. This way, we can create different working formats when required. Lastly, space should be scalable: whether you have a working staff of five or 50 people, the space should be able to accommodate both without feeling too cramped or inhibited.

Space allows you to set the stage and create a certain atmosphere by influencing the way people interact and collaborate. Yet to get to a truly innovative work environment, look beyond the superficial physicality of the office environment  —to every employee, department, management level, and board room— and truly instill creativity and innovation deeply in your company and employee DNA. As Castro, Gomes and de Sousa show, leadership and properly managed social interaction is what truly makes for a creative and innovative workplace: office space can only do so much in facilitating happiness, creativity, and innovation. Google, Facebook, and Airbnb neither started nor stopped there, and neither should you.

By Menno van Dijk, Laurie Kemp

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Currently finalizing a MSc Environment and Resource Management (Energy Studies), Laurie Kemp attained a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) in 2013. The broad nature of the program allowed her to delve into Social Systems from various perspectives: focusing on Law, Political Science and Economics. An avid idealist and globetrotter, Laurie is passionate about social and green innovation and bottom-up initiatives seeking to empower individuals and drive positive social change.


THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

This article was originally published on THNK.org.

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