Innovation and creativity are the raw fuel of the knowledge economy and workplace designers have long since sought to help organisations by applying their own inventiveness to the issue. But have they been looking in the wrong place – are the physical building blocks that support creativity and innovation quite what we think?
In his 2012 book “21st Century Management,” Swedish futurologist Mats Lindgren suggests that “innovative companies nurture an open, sharing and generous culture that supports playfulness and searching. They have people personally committed to innovation and a well functioning infrastructure that supports smooth and rapid innovation.” So to what extent does the hard and soft infrastructure influence organisational innovation and creativity?
Let’s first accept that changes to the physical structures alone won’t transform an introverted, individually focused organisation overnight into an extroverted, creative hotbed. But can our “100,000+ Data Report” help identify the workplace features that are the critical ingredients for fluid knowledge transfer and collaboration? The report, with analysis across our first 100,000 employee database responses by independent statisticians Formulate, statistically grouped (via factor analysis) our 21 standard Activities of work into distinct cluster groups. These groupings are based purely on the statistical patterns created by employees consistently selecting common activities. There were four clear groupings that emerged, three of which are reviewed in the report. The first, “collaboration / interaction,” I will examine here.
This group statistically clustered five of our 21 possible choices of activities that are “important to employees in their work;”
- Collaborating on focused work
- Collaborating on creative work
- Informal, unplanned meetings
- Informal social interaction
- Learning from others
The second group of activities consists of the more prearranged formalised type of working together, namely:
- Planned meetings
- Larger group meetings or audiences
- Video conferences
- Hosting visitors, clients or customers
The difference between the two is really in the nature of collaboration. The latter set of activities is more structured and planned, and perhaps more about sharing information and coordinating. The first is about knowledge creation, transfer, and dissemination, and comprises the interaction that is more difficult to explicitly define and that has more diverse spatial needs. But once the Activity groupings are defined, it is then possible to look for statistical consistency in the infrastructure items employees then go on to select as “important features in an effective workplace.” It is important to say that these are not specific infrastructure features employees have pointedly selected to support specific activities. Rather they are infrastructure items that cluster numerically around the activities that have been selected. The statisticians refer to these as “odds ratios:” the statistical likelihood or “odds” of someone selecting particular physical or service features based on their prior Activity preferences. These “odds ratios” expose two distinctly different infrastructure shopping lists for the two different forms of ‘working together.’ The “collaboration / interaction” group are more likely to choose as important (compared to the prearranged / formalised group) “accessibility of colleagues,” “small meetings rooms,” “informal work areas / breakout zones,” and “variety of different types of workspace.” The schedule continues with “wired in-office connectivity,” “natural light,” “quiet rooms for working alone or in pairs” and “atriums and communal areas.” So statistically these are the things we need to see as the infrastructure of collaboration and interaction. But while one organisation might increase “accessibility of colleagues” through a more open space figuration, another organisation with a highly mobile workforce might look at introducing virtual collaboration tools to achieve the same objective. So each organisation still needs to investigate and consider the localised solution for themselves. The same problems don’t necessarily require the same solutions. Looking then at the features that are important for formal meeting activities, we find “large” and “small meeting rooms,” “desk / room booking systems,” “audiovisual equipment” and “guest / visitor network access.” All of which make sense. Though it should be noted that only “small meeting rooms” is common to both shopping lists.
Of course looking at what has statistically made it to the respective lists is interesting, but considering what did not make it onto the lists is perhaps even more telling. Are there features employers believe fuel collaboration and creativity that actually have no impact at all – like open plan workspaces? Reviewing the features lists for both collaboration and interaction, and planned meetings, there is no mention of “desk” amongst our 100,000+ respondents. Those employees seem to agree that collaboration is not done at your workstation, it’s done elsewhere. So while “informal work areas / breakout zones” and “variety of different types of workspace” do not emerge as distinguishing features for those who have selected the formal meeting activities as important, they are important for the collaborators. As I have highlighted in past articles, this once again puts the spotlight on the importance of variety in the workplace. It all suggests that your typical open solution environment with two types of work settings – work stations and meeting rooms – might support a formal meeting culture, but that supporting collaboration and interaction requires an entirely more diverse workplace landscape.
The December (2015) issue of Harvard Business Review highlighted the notion that eating together enhances group performance and the article ‘Team building in the cafeteria’ suggested that devoting spaces, time, and resources to communal eating might be more effective than creating spaces that promote serendipitous encounters. Interestingly enough, “Tea, coffee and other refreshment facilities” and “Restaurant / canteen” did not statistically emerge as a feature distinguishing collaborators from noncollaborators. These features are important to everyone regardless of activity profile. So perhaps having a break and enjoying a cuppa is important for resetting and preparing, giving yourself the mental space between collaborative and individual focused work? An avenue for further investigation I suspect. Because though we have focused here on the importance of collaboration, let us not forget that most of us will still need some space and time for individual work activities. Knowledge creation is a process that consists of different phases, of which some are done together and some require time for yourself.
So being successful in even the most creative, innovative and collaborative of job profiles will require some time to reflect and internalise on your own – and a high performing workplace will successfully provide space for this, alongside space for collaboration.
Dr Peggie Rothe | Development Director | Leesman
Peggie is Leesman’s resident academic. Before joining the team in September 2014, she worked as a researcher at Aalto University (Finland) with a focus on corporate real estate, workplace management and short-distance office relocations, publishing her findings in several peer-reviewed academic journals.