Creative at the office?

Donatella De Paoli

Fun, colourful offices are all the rage. “They provide more of an image of being creative rather than actually fostering creativity,” according to researcher Donatella de Paoli at BI.

Many leading companies, also in Norway, have spent considerable sums making office environments designed to stimulate employees to become more creative and innovative.

A major industry has now developed around planning, designing and creating office workspaces. Architects, interior decorators, furniture designers and self-appointed experts are making lots of money.

Much of this is driven by trends. When one major company does something that looks cool, others are likely to follow.

Can play at work

The creative offices are often open office landscapes with colourful and fun furnishings. Adults are given permission to draw, dance, play, sit in the stands and otherwise have a lot of fun in their creative offices. And all this during working hours.
On their websites, companies are enthusiastic about showing pictures of their fun and inspiring offices. Perhaps with the secret hope that this could attract bright new minds.
Is this just a passing fun trend or could it be a profitable investment in the development of new products and services? Do employees become more creative in the creative offices?

Five popular topics

Associate Professor Donatella de Paoli at the BI Norwegian Business School, along with Professor Arja Ropo at the University of Tampere in Finland, have conducted a study to examine whether the new office solutions are designed in line with knowledge about what promotes creativity in organisations.

The results of the study have been published in the scientific periodical Journal of Corporate Real Estate.

The researchers searched online for the key words ‘creative workspace’, ‘creative office’ and ‘inspirational office’. They chose 40 pictures from the search results.
De Paoli and Ropo analysed the different design solutions for creative and inspirational offices. The analysis shows that five main themes recur in the creative offices:

  • Home (kitchen, living rooms and sofa corners)
  • Sports and play (youthful rooms with darts and a basketball hoop or exercise room)
  • Symbols and meaning (symbols for national culture)
  • Past and future technology (spaceship or submarine)
  • Nature (zen-like interior with greenery elements or nature murals).

The open office landscapes create an exciting dynamic where people, information and ideas flow together in the room.
“But where can you retreat to read, think or write?” says Donatella de Paoli.

Narrow view of creativity

The underlying premise of the creative office solutions is that creativity is a collective phenomenon that involves play, activity, fun, noise, dynamics and social interaction.
“Creativity can bloom when we do something together, but not only right then. Individual creativity is underestimated in the new solutions,” says the BI researcher.
Many creative people have an introverted side. They need peace and concentration in order to create. Individual expertise, talent and motivation are necessities for collective creativity.

These factors are not highly emphasised in the creative office environments, according to the researchers.

What makes us creative?

It is not necessarily the fancy, expensive offices that make people creative, but rather the opportunity to be spontaneously creative when and how they themselves desire.
“For example, artists thrive in worn-down surroundings with a patina that they can leave their mark on. In the theatre world, people work in completely black surroundings without lights,” says de Paoli.

The researchers find reason to be critical of the major investments being made in offices for the sake of creativity. “The creative offices create more of an image of being creative rather than actually fostering creativity.”

Instead of spending all the money on office design, managers should think about which tools office employees need to be more creative, according to the researchers. The office environments must take a basis in the equipment that office workers need to improvise, play and be creative.

“Whiteboards, flip-over, IT programmes and the internet are to knowledge workers what brushes and paint are to artists,” says Donatella de Paoli.

For example, placing whiteboards near the coffee machine could be a good idea. People gather spontaneously around the coffee machine, and creative ideas can be developed and drawn on the wall.

The researchers wondered whether the people working in the offices had anything to say. Generally not. Though the employees do contribute in some organisations, it is easy to be overruled by the design specialists.

“It is important to have balanced, democratic and user-driven processes to develop good creative office solutions, both if you want creativity or productivity at the workplace,” says de Paoli.

Four tips

In their study, De Paoli and Ropo present four tips for managers who want to create room for more creativity in their organisation:

  1. It is important to have a good balance between cell offices and open office landscapes.
  2. Stimulate spontaneous creativity instead of artificially stimulated creativity.
  3. Invest in office tools such as whiteboard walls, other boards and IT that stimulates creative processes.
  4. Users must be involved at an early stage in planning and design of office workspaces.

De Paoli, D. and Ropo, A. (2017) Creative workspaces - a fad or making real impact? Journal of Corporate Real Estate , https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRE-09-2016-0029.

Published 19. December 2017

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