Can your office design inspire creativity among its employees? Why is creativity important to a company or organization? What exactly is creativity, and why do we need it?

In today’s business world, one of the most important qualities of a company or organization is the creativity of its employees or workforce.

In fact, a recent study by IBM reveals that the most crucial factor for the future success of a company is creativity above all else [1]. In this study, IBM interviewed more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries around the world. CEOs ranked creativity higher than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or vision as being crucial to successfully navigating an increasingly complex world.

But what exactly is creativity?

In this article, we will learn exactly what creativity is and what it is not. Then we will explore various ways that your office design can inspire creativity among its employees.

Creativity: What It Is Not

When we hear the word “creativity”, we often think of an artist, painter, poet, playwright, or composer producing a work of art. We also tend to believe that creative people comprise the top 1/10th of 1% of the geniuses of society and that certain people are “born with it”. However, that is a common myth.

Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School who has been studying human creativity for over 40 years, has a different view of what creativity actually is. She has studied the autobiographies and writings of the world’s most famous people who are well known for their creative accomplishments.

What she noticed is that these famous people, well known for their creativity, had various fluctuations of creativity or “dry periods” in their lives in which they were not creative at all. She cites an example of Albert Einstein, who had a passion and creativity for science as a child but then lost that passion and creativity when he attended science classes in school as an adolescent. It turns out that Einstein hated the “militaristic” teaching style of his science classes where he had to strictly memorize information and accurately recall the information later. The teaching style of his science classes suppressed the freedom, curiosity, and exploratory thinking of his childhood.

Teresa further ran a series of experiments on people and found that certain factors within the “social environment” can have a profound and significant impact on the level of creativity in people. We will expand upon these factors later in this article.

As a result of these experiments and her research, Teresa strongly believes that creativity is not something that is limited only to the realm of “geniuses” who are “born with it”. Instead, she claims, creativity is something that is accessible to all of us, especially when our “social environment” encourages or stimulates creativity.

Creativity: What It Actually Is

If creativity is something that is not limited to “geniuses” who are “born with it” and is something that we all can do, how can we switch on our creativity? What factors in our social environment stimulate creativity?

Before we can answer that, we should first understand what creativity actually is.

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of creativity is:

  1. the state or quality of being creative
  2. the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination
  3. the process by which one utilizes creative ability

Indeed, in most business situations, creativity is thinking outside the box to solve a specific problem or to achieve a specific goal. During creativity, the person breaks traditional thinking by connecting unexpected ideas, methods, or information to the problem being solved or to the goal being achieved.

Creativity is a state of mind in which a person rejects traditional ideas, rules, patterns, and interpretations by connecting unexpected ideas and concepts from one’s individual imagination to the current problem or goal.

An Example Of Creativity:
The Story Of Doug Dietz And The MRI Machine

Let’s consider an example of creativity.

Doug Dietz was a lead industrial designer for new product development at GE Healthcare from 1989 to 1999. Soon after developing a new MRI machine for use in hospitals, Doug decided to visit a hospital to see how his MRI product was being used by doctors and medical professionals.

An MRI machine is a medical diagnostic machine that uses strong magnetic fields, electric fields, and radio waves to generate images of the internal organs of the body. Nowadays, MRI machines look like a giant donut. The patient, sleeping on his or her back, is then inserted into the center hole of the giant donut where his or her organs are scanned.

However, back in those days, when Doug was developing his MRI product, MRI machines looked extremely intimidating and frightening. When Doug visited the hospital to see how his MRI product was being used, he noticed a little girl who was so terrified of going into the MRI machine that she was crying in tears.

Upon further investigation, he learned that a large percentage of young children going into MRI machines were also terrified. In fact, the children were so terrified that they often needed to be sedated with medication so they could remain immobile during the scan, which was critically important for diagnostic accuracy. The emotional trauma experienced by the children also caused parents and medical staff to become emotionally distraught as well.

Doug found this to be unacceptable. He realized that his MRI product needed to be redesigned to be less intimidating to children.

But the problem was that redesigning the MRI product would be prohibitively expensive for GE Healthcare. Doug needed a solution. He needed a solution to break traditional thinking. What was that solution?

Doug’s Creative Solution

Doug was inspired by the idea that a child could take several chairs and a blanket and imagine it to be anything he or she wants: a castle, a truck, or a magical place. He combined that idea with the problem that he was trying to solve, which was to make MRI machines less intimidating to children.

He eventually came up with a series of visual designs that totally transformed the artistic look-and-feel of not only the MRI machine but also the entire room including the walls and floor. With these new designs, children felt like they were in a fun playground and imagined themselves as part of enjoyable child-like adventures. These designs playfully incorporated cartoon-like images of camping, animals, oceans, clouds, ships, and more.

His idea worked. And it worked very effectively.

The new MRI product designs had calmed down the children to the point where nurses no longer needed to sedate them with medication. In fact, one child enjoyed the experience so much, that the child wanted to come back and relive the experience the next day.

Today, Doug’s creative idea is reflected in GE Healthcare’s Adventure Series of MRI scanners for children, which is a big hit in children’s hospitals everywhere.

This story is a powerful example of creativity in business. Doug was confronted with a unique and unusual problem. The traditional solutions and common ways of thinking – i.e. the remodeling and re-engineering of the product – were not adequate to address the problem because they were too prohibitively expensive for GE Healthcare. Instead, Doug connected the unexpected idea of the several chairs and a blanket to his problem of making MRI machines less intimidating to children.

And the result of this creativity changed the world for the better.

There Are 2 Types Of Creativity In The Office Workplace

So we just learned that creativity breaks traditional thinking by connecting unexpected ideas to the problem being solved or to the goal being achieved.

But could there be different types of creativity in the workplace? Let us look at the different ways in which creativity manifests itself in the office workplace at your business or organization.

In modern office design, companies design their offices to be open and collaborative environments that facilitate easy and spontaneous communication between employees. However, a counter-trend to this is that some employees prefer to work in quiet isolation to minimize distractions and to enhance concentration on their work. Indeed, the friction between these two competing office design strategies has resulted in today’s trend toward mixed environments that balance group collaboration with individual concentration on the basis of personal preference.

This suggests that some people feel more creative when they are in a group and some people feel more creative when they are alone.

The two types of creativity in the workplace are:

  1. Group Creativity
  2. Individual Creativity

Group Creativity. When you are communicating as part of a group, you exchange new ideas with other members of the group. These new ideas challenge your own preconceived views and traditional view of the world. By connecting new ideas to the problem that you are trying to solve or to the goal that you are trying to achieve, you come up with creative solutions to the problem or creative methods for achieving the goal. Group collaboration is very important because not everyone knows everything, and the synergy of knowledge from different people of different backgrounds and areas of expertise is a powerful driver of business success.

In the above story of Doug Dietz and his MRI machine, Doug actually collaborated quite extensively with people from different professions that dealt directly with children. He collaborated with hospital personnel and medical staff. He also consulted directly with children themselves. This collaboration gave him new ideas that he ultimately used to solve his problem.

Individual Creativity. On the other hand, some people need to be alone in order to be creative. By isolating themselves from other people, they reduce their exposure to the traditional ideas and thinking patterns of others. This allows their minds to freely explore unexpected ideas without reprimand or criticism from others, whether those ideas come from their own experience or from additional research that they must do on their own.

Albert Einstein is an example of someone who used individual creativity to come up with ideas and concepts that revolutionized science and the way we view our world today. In fact, he often disagreed with the biggest experts in science in his day and blazed his own individual path of creativity.

Which type of creativity is better? It is likely that neither is better. Both types of creativity are appropriate in different situations for different individuals. For example, a person who generally prefers individual creativity will often need to collaborate with a group for a variety of business reasons.

Today’s Employees Want Offices Designed For Creativity

A recent survey on employee job satisfaction conducted by Society For Human Resource Management suggests a strong need by employees to exercise their creativity in the workplace [2].

This survey shows that 42% of all employees want “autonomy and independence to make decisions” in their workplace. In addition, 50% of employees want “immediate supervisor’s respect for my ideas” and 65% want “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels”. This language and choice of words is highly suggestive of the desire by employees to be creative or to make creative contributions to their organization.

The survey also reveals a desire by employees for collaboration and group creativity. 46% of employees want “communication within department/business unit” and 44% want “communication between departments/business units”.

Today’s employees are not satisfied with merely spinning the wheels at their job, since 43% of them want “meaningfulness of job”.

When we connect these dots together, we see that today’s employees want to make highly creative contributions to their companies or organizations. In addition to making employees happier, allowing employees the freedom to be creative should also catapult any company or organization toward phenomenal success.

Does your company or organization promote or encourage creativity?

An Office Environment That Fosters Creativity

Earlier in this article, we touched upon Teresa Amabile’s research on the world’s most famous and creative people; and her experiments revealing that certain factors within the “social environment” can have a profound and significant impact on people’s creativity.

What exactly are these factors? And how can we use these factors to design office spaces that foster people’s creativity?

In her 2012 working paper, “Componential Theory of Creativity“, Teresa reveals which factors of the social environment block creativity and which factors stimulate creativity [3].

Factors that block creativity include:

  • Norms of harshly criticizing new ideas
  • Political problems within the organization
  • An emphasis on the status quo
  • A conservative, low-risk attitude among top management
  • Excessive time pressure

Factors that stimulate creativity include:

  • Sense of positive challenge in the work
  • Work teams that are collaborative, diversely skilled, and idea-focused
  • Freedom in carrying out the work
  • Supervisors who encourage the development of new ideas
  • Top management that supports innovation through a clearly articulated creativity-encouraging vision and through appropriate recognition for creative work
  • Mechanisms for developing new ideas
  • Norms of actively sharing ideas across the organization

But the social environment isn’t the only thing that influences creativity. There are also factors that are internal to the individual that promote creativity. According to Teresa’s paper, these internal factors are:

  • The individual has knowledge, expertise, technical skills, intelligence, and talent in the particular domain where he or she is working, such as product design or electrical engineering.
  • The individual’s character and personality are compatible with independence, risk-taking, taking new perspectives, disciplined work style, and skills in generating ideas.
  • The individual is naturally and intrinsically interested in or passionate about the problem to be solved or the goal to be achieved. This interest or passion goes beyond financial reward or financial pain.

Now that we know some of the factors that influence creativity, how can we design office spaces that foster creativity? Let’s take a look at that next.

Office Design For Creativity

If you want to improve the level of creativity within your company or organization, you should first consider making changes to your social environment before making changes to your office design.

Assuming that you are satisfied with your social environment, you will next want to make changes to your office design.

Here is a compilation of ideas and suggestions for creating an office design that fosters creativity among its employees.

Create An Office Design That Stimulates The Right Side Of The Brain

Stimulating the right side of the brain, rather than the left, can be very effective in stimulating creativity. For decades, psychologists have known that the right side of the brain is responsible for (1) creativity, (2) three-dimensional spacial coordination, (3) musical activity, and (4) control of the left side of the body.

In particular, you may want to support activities involving three-dimensional spacial coordination in your office design to stimulate the right side of the brain in employees. Such activities include sports, certain games, ping pong, swings, slides, and walking.

Create An Office Design That Stimulates The Senses

An important way to build creativity into your office design is to stimulate any or all of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

How in the world does stimulating the five senses also stimulate creativity?

Creativity is an activity that pulls ideas, knowledge, and information from all over the brain. This is all the information that has accumulated in your brain from your childhood up to the present moment. Consequently, the more neurons you engage, the better. Stimulating the five senses causes more of your neurons to fire. This causes a chain reaction in your brain that stimulates ideas, knowledge, and information in the process of creativity.

Some examples of office design strategies that stimulate the senses include:

  • Moderate background noise. An experiment conducted by Juliet Zhu, marketing professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, found that people exposed to moderate levels of background noise (70dB) performed better on a creativity test than those who were exposed to low background noise (50dB) or high background noise (85dB). This supports open office designs in which people openly collaborate to a moderate degree but not so much that the level of noise is distracting and not so little that the auditory neurons are not engaged.
  • Glass Walls And Doors. Glass walls and doors in the workplace allow you to visually see more details of the workplace than opaque walls and doors. This can stimulate the imagination leading to improved creativity.
  • Interesting Window Views. Interesting views outside the office window can stimulate the imagination and enhance creativity. If your office is located atop a tall building, you may have magnificent views of the city and streets below.
  • Variety Of Colors. Having a variety of different colors in the workplace can provide visual stimulation that can, in turn, stimulate creativity.
  • Pictures, Paintings, And Photographs. Majestic, highly detailed, and engaging pictures, paintings, and photographs can stimulate the imagination and thus creativity. A panoramic view of a city, for example, can stimulate the right side of the brain, which is the part of the brain that is responsible not only for three-dimensional spacial coordination but also for creativity.

Create An Office Design That Encourages Physical Movement

Sometimes the best creative insights come to people when they are showering, walking, jogging, or playing a sport.

It is no coincidence that all of these activities engage the motor neurons of the body through physical movement. Like engaging the five senses, engaging the motor neurons of the body stimulates the brain. As mentioned earlier, creativity pulls ideas, knowledge, and information from all over the brain. Stimulating the motor neurons causes a chain reaction in the brain that stimulates ideas, knowledge, and information in the process of creativity.

Physical movement also increases blood flow to the brain, which improves brain performance and creativity.

Here are some ways in which an office design can encourage physical movement in employees:

  • Standup Meetings. These are brief meetings where everyone in the meeting stands up instead of sits down.
  • Sit/Stand Desk Risers. These are height-adjustable desk platforms that allow the employee to periodically alternate between standing up and sitting down at their desks.
  • Exercise Ball Chairs. These are large balls inflated with air that can be used instead of a chair. The person sitting on the ball can engage motor neurons by bouncing up and down on the ball. Sitting on the ball also forces the person to use muscles in the body that are required to maintain balance on the ball.
  • Areas For Walking Or Strolling. Sometimes we need to step away from a problem for a while so that we can return to it with a fresh, new perspective. A leisurely walk or stroll can often help.

Create An Office Design Where Breaking Convention Is The Norm

One of the best ways to design an office that encourages the breaking of convention is to build flexibility into the workplace. This means allowing people to easily modify their workspace.

For example, you can incorporate into the workplace tables, desks, chairs, and furniture that have wheels on them. This allows employees to easily move them around the office. Extendable meeting tables are another idea. Whiteboards, writable walls, and writable desks can also promote a dynamic workplace that is always changing rather than one that is always constant.

Create An Office Design That Invites Collaboration

As mentioned earlier, collaborating with others within a group can drive creativity. Open office designs can encourage informal meetings, discussions, and chance encounters that inspire creativity.

Conclusion

These are just some of the ways that your office design can inspire creativity in the workplace. Creativity is not what most people think it is. Creativity is a down-to-earth activity that flourishes under the right environmental conditions in the workplace. Many employees today want to make creative contributions to their companies and organizations. Developing the right social environment is very important in fostering this creativity. However, the right office design can also encourage creativity as well.

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References

[1] https://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/31670.wss
“IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success”

[2] https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/pages/2017-job-satisfaction-and-engagement-doors-of-opportunity-are-open.aspx
“2017 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: The Doors of Opportunity Are Open”

[3] http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/12-096.pdf
“Componential Theory of Creativity”

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgvMJS1zSsE
“How the Environment Impacts Creative Thinking”

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