Behind the scenes of the book that goes behind the scenes
Ever wondered what it’s like to work somewhere else? I have. Partly because I’m just plain nosey. Partly because I love going to places and seeing what makes creative environments tick. Which is partly why I decided to write “I Wish I Worked There”.
During the two years I spent researching my book I went behind closed doors of some of the most innovative businesses in the world. I visited companies from all types of industries ranging from finance to law, technology to entertainment, consumer goods to engineering & manufacturing. I didn’t do desk research. I got up and out and knocked on doors.
A few principles drove my research:
Corporates, not creative agencies
It’s almost expected that creative agencies have creative environments. I wanted to see how global businesses – complete with all the constraints, processes and issues that come with large-scale organisations – were able to prioritise the physical environment as a strategic tool.
Rather than collecting perfect “after shots” from design portfolios,
I wanted to see how environments operate long after the designers and architects have left.
What works, what doesn’t? How do people really use the spaces? I wanted to see these places warts and all, rather than in that polished, untouched state just after move-in day. Some places I visited were brand new, some were very much lived in. Most of the clever things I saw were conceived and/or built by people from within businesses themselves.
A common thread throughout every company I featured was that they were clear on three things:
1) Who they are
2) What makes them different (their culture, internal brand, how they do what they do)
3) What their people need to do their job well.
I found that despite the businesses, cultures and brands being vastly different, commonalities exist in the types of spaces that they provide to support and reinforce the right activities and behaviours for innovation.
Four types of (creative) space
Four types of space that support creative activity that enable, engage and energise people:
Stimulate: space for inspiration
For most people, it’s virtually impossible to have fresh ideas in a vacuum. Stimulating spaces can enable people to connect with the problem, subject or consumer they’re working on by allowing them to immerse themselves in that world, deriving mental energy from the stimuli itself.
Human beings thrive on stimulation – mental, emotional and physical. Stimulating spaces speak to people through non-verbal means, reinforcing messages, attitudes and values. They lift spirits, connect people to a common purpose and appeal to the senses.
A word of warning: ‘clean desk policies’ fly in the face of stimulating spaces, although careful space design and maintaining rituals around managing the space can maintain a happy balance between stimulation and clutter!
Reflect: space to think
Once the mind has been fed a problem, it often needs time and space to allow that problem to incubate. Periods of intense focus, coupled with time to unwind set up the right conditions for a creative brain to problem solve. Reflective spaces allow people to refresh and recharge. They can provide individual contemplation or allow people to focus on a project or task uninterrupted.
Note: This type of space is often forgotten in open plan offices!
Circulation routes designed to slow people down can be a powerful way of injecting reflective headspace into the daily grind. Creating zig-zag, curved or random paths force people to take a breath of air, stop to think and break out of uber-busy automatic pilot mode.
In a bid to improve communication, transparency and generate a vibrant, buzzy environment, I often see those essential retreat spaces swallowed up by large conference rooms or more desks as the company expands. Better to maintain a balance of private and public, individual and team spaces, with smaller or shared desks than lose this valuable space type.
Collaborate: Space to share
Ideas need to be shared in order to get better, progress and ultimately to happen. The best creative collaborative spaces are more than just meeting rooms. In fact they’re usually not meeting rooms – they’re hallways, food stops or outside areas – and they encourage the sharing of tacit knowledge in a non-hierarchical way.
Great collaboration spaces are designed to engineer collisions, cross over functions, accommodate impromptu get-togethers, share thinking ‘live’ and they also send cultural ‘open door’ messages that encourage informal conversations despite seniority or tenure.
Play: Space to connect and explore
The benefits of play are well documented for social development and well-being, but few businesses really understand the power of play. Play comes in many guises – not just slapstick craziness, but also in the form of deep exploration and experimentation – as well as simply adding a light touch to human interactions. Playful spaces allow collegues to connect in a relaxed, agendaless way – which strengthens relationship bonds and makes work conversations easier. Playful spaces also let people de-stress and let off steam, making their working day more productive and healthy in the long-term.
Finally, having ‘closed door’ spaces is an important aspect that encourages free thinking, experimentation and supports those childlike behaviours that are great for creativity, but often distracting for those trying to complete an Excel spreadsheet!
Different spaces will appeal to different businesses in different measures, but a combination of all four types (whatever the blend suits your company) makes for great environments that support the work that people need to do, the culture you’re building and reinforce the business values and vision in a way that’s uniquely you.