Which is better for Creativity: Working in the Office or Telecommuting?
There’s a lot of active debate between workers and employers about whether working from home or working in the office is more productive.
But which is more creative?
Working from Home can offer some Advantages…
Many office workers who were sent home during the pandemic discovered that working from home has some key advantages when it comes to creativity. For example, working at home can be quieter, offering greater privacy and with fewer interruptions compared to shared office accommodations – allowing workers to get into the “flow” of creative thinking.
Remote work also offers greater flexibility; for example, you can take a break from work by leaving the house to run an errand or perhaps take a mid-afternoon walk in the park, which can help you recharge your creative energies.
… But Home Offices also have their Disadvantages
On the other hand, those of us who have worked from home have discovered some distinct disadvantages when it comes to creativity. For example, it’s much harder to collaborate with colleagues over a Zoom call. Brainstorming and sharing ideas come more naturally when meeting in person. And, when you are working from home, you don’t have the opportunity to spontaneously run into people as you would in the office; as we’ll see in the next section, these chance encounters often lead to important creative outcomes.
Can We Quantify the Value of Working Together in Person?
A question that’s taken on new urgency since the pandemic is whether it’s possible to put a precise value on the benefits that come from working face-to-face.
One of the pioneering studies on this topic comes from researchers at the University of Michigan who looked at the productivity outcomes of laboratory scientists who were co-located on the same floor of a building (compared to those who worked on different floors or at different locations).
The researchers theorized that designing the floorplan around common pathways and maximizing the amount of common physical spaces shared by workers (a concept they call ‘zonal overlap’) significantly increased the number of potential interactions each day, making individuals “more likely to interact, share information, and develop social or collaborative relationships.”
They found that “across the two buildings, a 100-foot increase in path overlap results in significantly higher outputs of IRB applications, animal research protocols, and grant applications to external sponsors” compared to the control buildings where workers were separated apart.
In-Person Meetings Generate More Creative Ideas than Online Zoom Meetings
New research conducted by Melanie Brucks of Columbia Business School and Jonathan Levav of the Stanford Graduate School of Business reports that in-person meetings have a big advantage over virtual meetings when it comes to creativity.
The study, published in Nature, involved over 600 people working in pairs to come up with a creative idea using a Frisbee or bubble wrap. Teams working virtually or in-person were given five minutes to brainstorm for ideas, then another minute to decide on their best idea.
What were the results? According to the study, those working face-to-face generated more creative ideas, and their ideas were judged to have greater utility and novelty compared to those of the teams working virtually.
In-person teams were also found to be better at deciding on which of their brainstorming concepts to select as the best option.
To confirm the results of the experiment, researchers recruited nearly 1,500 telecom and infrastructure company engineers (at five different sites worldwide) to participate in a similar brainstorming ideation workshop. The larger field study came to the same conclusions as the smaller lab study: in-person collaboration produces more high-quality ideas compared to collaborating virtually.
Office Designs that Promote Creativity at Work
How can architects, interior designers, and facility planners take advantage of these insights to improve collaboration and creative outcomes in the office?
Think about Creating Shared Pathways when Designing Office Layouts
To replicate the success of the University of Michigan study, consider pathway design first when deciding where to locate different employees and departmental functions. By sharing long pathways (where people are likely to run into each other), you will increase the number of spontaneous one-on-one interactions and help develop silo-busting social networks within the office that span different departments.
Build Common Office Areas where Employees Working on Different Floors can Meet
As companies get larger, it becomes more difficult (if not impossible) to co-locate every employee on the same floor. But there are things you can do to compensate for this.
One idea is to focus on creating casual lounges adjacent to functional areas, such as entrance lobbies, elevator banks, or restrooms. These can help encourage spontaneous meetings among employees that might not be working closely together within the building.
Another approach is to create common indoor/outdoor spaces where people can meet for lunch or to get some fresh air.
Cafeterias that encourage people to get up from their desks and walk to a central location not only help people get some much-needed blood flow, they can also help bring people together that otherwise might not run into each other during the day.
Make Space for Impromptu In-Person Brainstorming Sessions
Architects, designers, and facility planners seeking to maximize creative encounters should add a generous number of spontaneous meeting zones as well. These can include the casual lounge spaces discussed above, as well as huddle rooms where people can gather on the spur of the moment to conduct impromptu brainstorming sessions. Don’t forget to include dry erase surfaces for capturing ideas!
Deploy Advanced Conferencing Solutions and Multi-function Spaces
Ad hoc meetings in casual lounges and huddle rooms are very useful. But there are other important kinds of spaces designed to foster collaboration and help develop creative ideas.
First among these are advanced conference rooms with sophisticated conferencing cameras, audio, and video projection systems that deliver a true “telepresence” effect to bring together colleagues and partners working from home or working from the other side of the world.
Advanced conference rooms can also serve other functions as well, such as hosting meeting roundtables, brown bag lunches, or project planning hubs.
Because space comes at a premium in today’s heated real estate market, innovative facility planners are taking advantage of flexible furniture solutions that allow conference rooms and other multi-function spaces to be quickly converted from one role into another. For example, using mobile furniture solutions, you can convert a conference room into a reception room to host guests or create a gallery space to showcase a new product or project.
Incorporate Telecommuting Advantages into your Office Design
As we mentioned at the beginning, many employees who transitioned to remote work during the pandemic have discovered some important benefits of working in a home office, such as increased privacy and fewer distractions (assuming there are no young children or needy pets at home!)
Facility planners looking to bring workers back to the office should try to replicate these features in the office to make it a more creative and productive environment as well.
Noise Control and Privacy
Workers are very sensitive to noise and the lack of privacy in open-plan offices. This is especially true for introverts, who want greater control over their work environment in order to be productive.
One solution is to provide quiet work areas, such as dedicated libraries or other hushed work zones that allow people to concentrate on difficult tasks. Another option is to provide high-quality headsets, such as the Razer Nari Essential model, which helps isolate ambient noise from co-workers talking, yet allows individuals to dictate or speak on a built-in microphone.
Tip: To learn more about managing noise in the office, see our article 8 Office Noise Reduction Tricks for Sound Minimization.
Another advantage of working remotely that has become very important to workers is increased flexibility. For example, if they need to pick up dry cleaning or register a car, they can leave and come back. Managers would do well to replicate this kind of flexible timekeeping policy in the office. Regular breaks not only help reduce employee stress, they can also help recharge workers throughout the day, getting the blood flowing to the brain – giving the subconscious mind some time to develop creative solutions to problems.
Natural Light, Natural Views, and Biophilic Design
In our survey of office workers, natural light, views of nature, and exposure to natural life, such as plants, were among the most-requested amenities as ranked by respondents. This is not only important information for your recruiting and retention policy, it’s also critical information for architects, interior designers, and facility planners. People become calmer and more productive in spaces bathed in natural light. Adding natural elements such as views of the surrounding natural landscape or plant life (an approach known as Biophilic Design) also helps reduce stress and encourage more creative thought at work.
Is it Time to Take Your Office Environment to the Next Level of Creativity?
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