Intuitively we know that the spaces we occupy have an effect on how we feel and behave – but do we actually think about how this impacts our psychological wellbeing and performance at work?
The choices we make about what we put in our workspaces – how they’re arranged and their on-going management – speak volumes about what we value and how that aligns with our business goals.
But before heading out to the local office supplies store or browsing Pinterest for examples of the latest ‘cool’ offices, there are some fundamental truths we should consider when embarking on building inspiring work environments.
Spaces arent creative, people are
Innovation is the lifeblood of business. Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation. Creativity comes from individuals and teams operating at their best towards a common goal. The bad news is that building an environment that imitates other ‘successful’ innovative organisations won’t automatically build you a creative culture. Installing slides, football tables, beanbags and lava lamps – or even the latest hot-desking system won’t magically transform your people’s creative capabilities and confidence.
The good news? Everyone has their own creative abilities and the innovation process requires different thinking styles at different stages, so everyone has a role to play. Space won’t make people creative, but it can inspire people to think and behave in ways that enable creative connections to happen. It can provide clues and guidance around the behaviours that are acceptable and encouraged, communicate that we care, what we value, and give people a sense of community, belonging and purpose. Or it can get in the way; it can break down relationships, enforce negative behaviours and create a climate of ‘it’s someone else’s responsibility’. So it’s important to consider space as the stage for our creative performance – something that provides the backdrop and props that fuel the action of the organisation.
Space has a profound impact on us. At its most fundamental level, environmental factors such as daylight and air quality can help us operate at our best. Something as simple as a view of nature can help us mentally, emotionally and physiologically. It can influence how we behave in society, negatively and positively, as evidenced by the strong correlation between urban decay and crime. This was central to the so-called ‘broken windows theory’, introduced by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling in 1982.
When at work, our productivity suffers when we are starved of good light and air, and get distracted by unwanted noise and fluctuations in temperature. We can feel safe or under scrutiny by virtue of our placement in a space.
Why is it that our physical work environment is so often overlooked as an important tool for business?
Platform for productivity
If space is such a critical factor when it comes to human performance, why do organisations solely leave it to facilities teams to manage? Working environments can address these basic hygiene factors and provide the platform for productivity. They also resonate with the cultural cues that enable people to operate at their personal best, in harmony with the company values while delivering its strategy.
It’s important to start with the basics. The late, great Abraham Maslow would concur that, without addressing the fundamental hygiene factors (such as lighting, temperature, food – and even Wi-Fi), anything else is just superficial and will soon become gimmicky or a source of annoyance or resentment. Make sure that your spaces enable people to be effective in their work. Really question what your business requires of its people. What activities do they need to perform, and what types of interactions do your employees need to have?
Once you establish what’s effective, then it’s time to work out where to splash the cash and where to save. However, a word of warning: the decisions you make around how you spend your money will send signals to the organisation about what you value. So make sure you spend consciously and communicate your reasoning. If you know that people spend a lot of time in a certain space, invest in the furniture and fixings. If it’s a place where you want people to let loose and be unencumbered, then make smart choices around how to save money.
Your physical environment is an opportunity to express your company’s values, to communicate to people how you’d like them to behave and to share information and inspiration about the world; both inside and outside the organisation. Off-the-shelf environments are devoid of personality and don’t inspire people to think differently. Conversely, an environment that expresses an attitude amplifies elements of a brand or cultural value.
Studies by the University of Exeter show that an ‘enriched space’ that incorporates expression improves productivity by 17% over a plain environment. By getting your people involved – engaging them in the decision-making process, empowering them to make their own choices about how, where and when they need to work, and inspiring them to look after their spaces – you’ll enjoy a 32% uplift in productivity.
Spaces should – like businesses, and people – change. They should not be set in stone. Whether it’s flexible spaces that change each time they’re used, or a variety of spaces that suit different activities that change over time, you’ll create the acceptance that things can and should change according to business needs. In a world that’s constantly shifting, it’s important to provide some stability through the people who make your spaces work. It is here that the role of the ‘host’ of your working environment comes into its own. Not only providing a reliable go-to source of information and help about your spaces, these are the people who provide warm welcomes to visitors and weary travellers, activate the spaces and encourage people to engage in them.
Finally make it unique
The golden rules of creating inspiring work environments are to do something that suits your organisation, do it with your people and keep on doing it.
“Consider space as the stage for our creative performance – something that provides the backdrop and props that fuel the action of the organisation”
What does your environment say about your organisation?
Do you feel proud, fulfilled and inspired by your workspace – or do things need shaking up a bit? What would you change and how would you change it? And what initiatives would you roll out to get your people involved?
Share your stories with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org