Monday Mornings with Madison

Is Less More When It Comes to Office Space?

Part 2 – Work Space, Creativity and Innovation

There has been a growing trend of businesses cutting back on the amount of work space allocated per person.  Sharing offices has become more common.  Cubicles are getting tinier.  And open shared space with a number of desks or work stations in one open area – once considered so cutting-edge — has become ubiquitous.  Employees are being packed into ever-smaller spaces.  There have been a few tech firms in the San Francisco Bay Area that have gotten to worker densities of up to seven workers per 1,000 square feet of space or 142 SF per employee.  The average just a decade ago was four workers per 1,000 square feet.  As the Russian adage says, they are packed so tight that there is no room for an apple to fall.

Last week, we looked at how smaller work spaces are impacting employee productivity.  The evidence — at least in some occupations such as computer programming (which, like many jobs, benefits from quiet and concentration) — shows that cramped, busy, noisy offices can have a negative impact on productivity.  In one study, programmers working in quiet, private offices were up to 10 times more productive than equally talented programmers in office environments that were busy, crowded and noisy.  If small work spaces can affect productivity, what impact might smaller work spaces have on creativity and innovation. Whereas once upon a time, open shared office space was heralded as a springboard for collaboration, managers are reconsidering the evidence.

The Connection between Creativity, Collaboration and Close Quarters

Fostering creativity is a huge focus in many companies today.  For many businesses, they must either innovate or perish.  According to Linda Naiman, a creativity and innovation consultant, coach, speaker, author, founder of Creativity at and Senior Associate at the Creative Leadership Forum Learning Centre, “For innovation to flourish, organizations must create an environment that fosters creativity; bringing together multi-talented groups of people who work in close collaboration together — exchanging knowledge, ideas and shaping the direction of the future.”  Therefore, companies that value creativity have gone to great lengths to provide a physical work environment that cultivates the creative spirit of their employees.

Case in point.  HubSpot values an open culture where there is a free exchange of ideas and information. To facilitate this, no one has an office, not even the company’s founders. They rotate desk arrangements on a regular basis and assign seating by pulling names out of a hat.  The result?  According to HubSpot, their workers have an easier time getting to know each other than if they were stuck in departmental silos.  But does that equal increased creativity?  Collaboration?  Innovation?  For Hubspot, yes.

Google thought so too.  When setting up their Corporate Headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, the steering groups for Google handling space design indicated that they wanted a strong emphasis on communal space rather than on personal office space.  The architecture firm built out a series of small, compact workstations through parts of the building, complemented by elaborate, extremely varied collaboration spaces. Common space–in the forms of communications rooms, cafes, conference rooms, and other spaces for communal work–make up about 50 percent of the office’s floor plan.   Collaborative shared space seems to be working for Googlers too.

Crowded Work Spaces Decrease Creativity

On the other hand, while open spaces are known to foster collaboration and create greater camaraderie among staff, which can also help teams to gel, managers are now reexamining what impact shared office space really has on innovation and creativity.  An article in the journal Ergonomics by Dul & Ceylan discussed the role of the physical environment in stimulating creativity. Some of the conclusions they drew were that open plan offices, cubicles and ergonomic furniture led to increased worker performance and satisfaction, improved communication, better transfer to the job of learned skills, and better recruitment and retention of qualified personnel.

Similar studies also showed that certain features of the physical workplace can have positive effects on creative task performance, such as the presence of plants, colors, use of natural materials and furniture and direct window view.   However, they also found that a non-crowded work space had a profound impact on creativity.  In those studies, an agreeable physical environment with adequate light, furniture, ventilation and especially space were found to stimulate creativity, whereas an environment with noise, heat, insufficient illumination, and lack of space inhibited creativity. Such physical features were thought to affect creativity because of the influence they have on the employee’s mood.

Noisy Workspaces Reduce Tenacity

Another way in which smaller work spaces may impact innovation is that noise often accompanies crowded or shared work areas.  According to a study in The Journal of Applied Psychology, 40 female clerical workers were subjected to three hours of low-intensity noise that simulated the sounds heard in a typical open office. The control group experienced three hours of quiet. Afterward, both groups were given puzzles to solve.  Unbeknownst to them, the puzzles had no solution. The participants who had been treated to a quiet work setting kept plugging away at the puzzles while the subjects who’d endured the noisy conditions gave up after fewer attempts.  The office environment has a profound impact on their tenacity and perseverance, key qualities in innovation.

The key, it seems then, is to provide employees spaces where teams can collaborate and be creative, but also have other areas where those that need uninterrupted quiet time can go to think and work individually.  This, however, goes in the opposite direction of companies trying to cut back on the cost of office space and make do with less.  Providing both desks and open areas uses more space, not less.  Perhaps, however, companies worrying about the cost of space should consider that the return on investment in providing employees with adequate workspace is an increase in creativity, innovation and productivity that is likely to more than pay for itself.  So the solution to the rising cost of work space may be for companies to increase their profitability by engineering work spaces that are conducive to greater productivity and innovation.

Quote of the Week

“You are a product of your environment.” W. Clement Stone


© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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