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How your workspace affects your creativity

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You put a lot of time, effort, and money into hiring this latest round of employees for your fast-growing company. And you’ve picked out a promising group of smart, eager, creative problem-solvers who are sure to make your business better. So why are you putting them in a workspace that affects their creativity?

That’s a huge mistake a lot of companies are making with open offices. Yes, you want your office environment to reflect your culture and encourage productivity, but all the couches and ping-pong tables in the world can’t overcome the damage that many open-office environments are doing to your most creative employees.

Open-concept offices are popular, in large part, because they save a company money in real estate expenses. You can get more people into the same amount of space using a wide-open layout. But more and more studies are finding that those real estate savings are offset by a loss of productivity.

Privacy and control are key

For knowledge workers to thrive, they need to feel some amount of privacy and control over their environment, according to Maura Thomas, whose book, Work Without Walls, examines productivity and the future of work. Sometimes, the creative process includes simply sitting and thinking, reviewing scenarios in your mind. But from the outside, that looks like you could be staring into space. Time spent worrying about whether you’re looking busy enough is time away from being creative.

The type of focused work that is so critical to companies in the new economy needs a quiet space to flourish. But the noise and distraction of an open office works against that. Often it’s not the overall noise level, but the fluctuating nature of the noise itself.

Cognitively, there is plenty of research now that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations

Julian Treasure – Sound & Communication Expert, TED Speaker

Other people’s conversations are a productivity killer. Julian Treasure, whose TED Talk, “The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us”, has been viewed nearly 2 million times, says we can only pay attention to 1.6 human conversations at once. If you’re hearing somebody’s else’s conversation, that counts as one of your 1.6. That means you can’t give your inner voice your full attention.

“Cognitively, there is plenty of research now that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations,” Treasure told office furniture maker Steelcase.

Without stretches of quiet concentration, the products of knowledge work — like creativity, analysis, and decisions — become harder to produce. Thomas compared the interruptions to riding a bike over 20 miles, but hitting the brakes every time you reach a good speed.

“It would take you much longer to go those 20 miles and that trip would be a much less efficient use of your energy than if you could pedal and coast and pedal a little more and coast a little more,” she said. “That’s what happens in an office. Every time we get on a roll, we get interrupted and we have to start all over again.”

But what about the value of collaboration? When Zappos designed their Las Vegas headquarters, their open layout emphasized “collisions over convenience,” meaning that chance meetings between various groups could lead to new ideas. Thomas said that collaboration has been hard to quantify, and recent research has shown that any potential gains are outweighed by the detrimental effects of the open office.

Make your workspace creative-friendly

There are ways to fight back against the noise of an open layout. Thomas recommends soft furnishings, curtains and throw rugs to dampen noise. Rather than playing music over the office sound system, she says, consider ambient or nature sounds.

Some teams develop their own “do not disturb” signals. You could use flags or signs at your desk—red means stay away, yellow means disturb if important, and green means OK to interrupt. Something as simple and “headphones on = no” and “headphones off = yes” could also work.

You have a lot more flexibility if you’re starting a new office or moving into a new space. WeWork offers a wide range of options that include private areas for distraction-free environments, areas for individual or small group work, or even a configurable space on a private floor with your own amenities.

Learn more about how we do this at WeWork by getting in touch.