The cowork phenomena has taken hold globally through two key trends: 1) the growth of independent workers who find value in connecting with others and 2) real estate players who find value in space rentals. But the heart of the sustainability will be in the strength of the brands – which are inherently created by the culture of the communities they attract.
Successful co-working spaces are increasingly offering more than desk space.
Speakers at London’s November Worktech conference said a sense of community, identity and access to business information & funding are among the benefits offered in flexible space. However they voiced caution that the currently booming sector could struggle during a downturn.
Head of property for Tech City UK Juliette Morgan said many co-working locations are now offering excellent onsite food, a programme of speakers, exercise classes and a personally controllable environment when it comes to heat and light.
“People in London are not able to afford places to live. They want work to inspire them and relax them as well because they spend so much time there. This isn’t about territory – it’s about somewhere you share,” she said.
WeWork creative director Devin Vermeulen said the company sees itself as a magazine ‘masthead’ with a distinctive brand under which different businesses…
It’s official: we’ve been commissioned by Nesta to get digging deep into scientific evidence, chat to as many people who will lend us their time and scout out some examples – both great successes and epic failures – of working environments that have been designed to support creativity and innovation.
The goal? To establish whether there really is any robust evidence to support the idea that we are a product of our surroundings; that the spaces in which we spend most of our waking hours go some way to enabling our best creative work.
More information on the project can be found on Nesta’s website, but in a nutshell, we need help! We need help finding great books, research and papers to read, help to find clever people who know a bit about creative culture, innovation, workplace design, the future of work, collaboration, socio-technological trends…and of course some great (and not-so-great) places that illustrate the point.
If you have any leads or thoughts, please get in touch or leave a comment below.
It’s a question I love asking. I’m fascinated by the surroundings and situations that people create – whether consciously or not – in order to help them think clearly, solve problems and just really feel ‘themselves’. I’ve found that no matter what walk of life people come from, the answers that come back almost always fall into one or more of the following areas: nature, on the move, in social situations or (alone) in the bath or shower!
Nature has a profound impact on us as humans. Sunlight, fresh air and natural surroundings positively affect peoples’ sense of wellbeing and happiness. Even a view of nature is powerful. Research has shown hospital patients with a window overlooking trees to feel less pain and get better quicker than those with a view of a wall or no window at all.
And office workers have been shown to experience lower mental fatigue and stress when nature is present. During a typical working day, people can spend prolonged periods of focused attention on one thing, such as a computer screen. This strains the brain and can cause distraction, irritability, impatience and causes people to become less effective in performing tasks. In the 1980s, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan developed Attention Restoration Theory, which showed that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, where the brain engages in “effortless attention”, which relieves “directed attention fatigue”. Attention may be “restored” by changing to a different kind of task that uses different parts of the brain. So next time you find yourself stuck or need to crack a problem, take a walk in a park or gaze out of the window.
We all know that we should exercise more – that it keeps us physically healthy and fit. But when it comes to thinking, physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and also a specific protein that is known to promote the health of nerve cells and improve mental functioning. Moreover, repetitive action also moves the brain into ‘alpha’ – the best brain state for problem solving and lateral thinking. The alpha brainwave frequency is present when you’re relaxed but alert, and is at the base of your conscious awareness. It is in this mental state that you have access to your subconscious mind, when your imagination, visualisation, memory, learning and concentration is heightened. It’s not just physical exercise that can induce alpha; taking deep breaths, driving and other repetitive actions like knitting can also do the job! This may come as no surprise to you if you find your best thinking happens when you’re taking to dog out for a walk!
Some people find that ideas come to them better when they’re relaxing with friends and family or people-watching in places like bars, parks or cafes where there’s a ‘buzz’ of activity. The visual stimulation of public spaces and interaction with other people can be just the right tonic for getting some people’s brain juices flowing.
In recent years coffee shops have become unofficial offices of an army of flexible workers, and in just 5 years, the number of people teleworking in the US has increased by almost 80% and self-employed workers has risen by XX% in the same time period.
– Bouncing ideas off other people – stimulates thinking
– Background noise – helps to get you thinking more critically
In the bath or shower!
For some, it’s the sensation of running water and being relaxed and alone with one’s thoughts that enables real problem solving to occur. That twilight state between being awake and asleep can be a fantastic time for ideas. If you’ve ever wondered why you hear the expression ‘I’m so busy I can’t even think’ at work or why the name of that actress in that film-about-the-dog-and-the-old-guy suddenly comes to you in the shower, it’s all down to your brain’s state and its ability to access your subconscious. Most of us operate during the majority or our day in the 3-4% of our brain’s processing capacity that is conscious. This is where our mind usually operates in daily life. In such a state we have full conscious awareness and attention of everything around us and usually only one side of brain is operating. This is a good state for sequential thinking and processing – actioning things – getting through your to-do list, reminding the kids about their homework whilst driving them to football practice – that kind of thing. What it is not good for is thinking holistically or laterally, problem solving or the often sought after ‘aha’ moment.
Archimedes’ ‘Eureka!’ happened in the bath for a good reason. So the provision of showers at work not only encourage cyclists and gym goers to lead physically healthier lives, they also may contribute to better ideas.
Inspiring work environments
When I ask the “where do you have your best ideas” question, interestingly no one says ‘the office’. We expect our people to perform at their best; the future of work demands more creative thinking and problem solving, more social connectivity and agility, yet we still tend to force them into environments that do not support them. So spotting your own needs when it comes to inspiration and considering the needs of others can help when defining the environments that we provide for people.
(Incidentally, all of the images shown here are workplaces).
Kursty Groves discusses what makes a creative and inspiring workplace, including examples from her book I Wish I Worked There!
With a growing resistance against ‘lean’ office design, and new research suggesting that it lowers productivity, she asks: do today’s ‘knowledge workers’ need more individual, less standardised workplaces than many of them currently have access to?
One of the most inspiring and humbling experiences I’ve been privileged enough to enjoy in recent times was the year-long tour I took of about 60 different corporate workspaces around the world as part of researching my book, I Wish I Worked There! The fact that large, successful companies were willing to throw open their doors and share the inner workings of their daily corporate life – warts and all – allowed me to report on what was working (or not working) for them, and for us all to learn from it.
Several common threads emerged as I visited a large variety of companies in industries ranging from Automotive to Banking, Consumer Healthcare to Film, and two specific comments stand out that I think illustrate an interesting challenge that many businesses face as they embrace new office design philosophies to support new ways of working.
Whilst being shown around a newly refurbished office by a Facilities Manager, she turned to me and proudly proclaimed:
‘We’re implementing a “lean policy” here – doesn’t it look great?’, which was followed quickly by, ‘It’s a shame we have to put people in here – they just spoil it all!”’
On another tour of a large utilities provider in the USA, a Project Manager metaphorically threw up his hands as he exclaimed: ‘This is supposed to be hot desking, but look!…’, indicating to piles of paper and files on a surface, ‘..and you should see the lockers – they’re chock-a-block full of people’s crap!’ Hot desking, it seems, is a phrase that most people understand comes with the obligatory “clean desk policy” but the reason behind the initiative is not always understood. Depending on whom you turn to, you’ll hear different sides of the story, but at the heart there lies the same problem: in a bid to increase space efficiency, manage mess and create a unified “look and feel”, something goes wrong.
Enabled by technology, organisations are moving (some more quickly than others), toward paperless systems removing wires and cables and working in more agile ways. Whilst this move is clearly in the right direction, it has fuelled a surge of minimally-designed offices – with clean lines, matching everything and enforced clean desk policies. In some cases, the office environment looks like one has walked onto a Hollywood set designed to depict heaven – yet, for the employee, it can feel like hell.
Environments like these might be pleasing to the designer’s eye and apparently easy to maintain for the Facilities Manager, but how does it affect the worker? And what are the consequences for business? In recent times, I have witnessed a resistance to this type of one-size-fits-all lean office design. The reason is that – in some cases – it is having an adverse effect. By focusing on design for design’s sake it can strip the personality out of a place and take with it a sense of ownership that often contributes to employee happiness, wellbeing and productivity.
I am a huge advocate for those businesses who are looking forward and seeking out working environments that support more modern working processes, and methods enabled by technology, but they also need to be seeking to answer the question: ‘How can we create a productive yet inspiring working environment?’
Save the Office Soul
Without soul, a place lacks a deeper connection to people. Pause for a moment to consider those places you just love being in – those environments that seem to speak to you. For some, it’s the pomp and grandeur of a cathedral, for others it’s the unadulterated beauty of nature and others still it can be the humility of a friendly local pub. In many cases, people talk of feeling a sense of “possibility” or “inspiration”, feeling “connected” or being “at one” when surrounded by places that are rich in history, showing evidence of the patina of time, imbued with meaning or stories or just indescribably beautiful.
Yet when I ask people where they go to be inspired, or to describe an environment that helps them to think clearly, problem-solve or create, the office is never indicated as top of the list. Cynics might argue that productivity and creativity don’t mix – that offices are for processing and creativity is for “out of hours”, but I have seen countless examples of higher-performing individuals and teams within organisations who all share one thing in common: a strong culture reinforced by an appropriate physical environment. Of course there are many successful companies who have a thriving culture within mediocre offices, but one can’t help but imagine how much better the culture and performance of those people would be if some attention were paid to ensuring the spaces that surround those people support them and work with them.
The offices of Bloomberg, whose primary business is analysing and sharing financial data which relies on technology to operate a paperless office, could be like many in the financial industries: dull and corporate. Yet here, where speed, transparency and trust is at the heart of the company’s success, layers of light and colour are to communicate round-the-clock information. The appreciation of how the environment can inspire and sooth goes deeper than mere information displays: a more visceral engagement can be experienced aurally – where meaningful sound codes denote business successes and the now “signature” fish tanks stocked with beautiful and interesting colourful fish entice people to slow down for a moment of contemplation.
One of the strongest competitive advantages a business can have is that of a strong culture. A product or service can be copied, but you can’t copy a culture. A place that reflects the collective soul of the people who ‘live’ there will resonate with the energy that encourages those people to be who they are, encouraging them to work towards a common goal with a purpose higher than clocking in from 9-5.
Places with soul also have an undeniable identity, where the purpose and personality of the people who occupy them seem to resonate through the very fabric of the environment. When people develop a sense of belonging or attachment to a workplace, it helps to reinforce values and attitude, feel “at home” and consequently free to bring their whole minds to work. The result: people who are have permission to be productively creative.
When it comes to belonging, there are four levels to consider:
Organisational belonging, where people feel aligned behind a common vision, set of values and way of doing business.
Geographic belonging, where local cultural differences are encouraged, which makes for a more friendly environment; people are less likely to feel like just another cog in the wheel or just another desk number! You can walk into any Google office in the world and know that you’re in Google. Yet each has its own unique flavour – rather than being exactly the same the world over, attention is paid to local preferences. This applies not only to the “quirks” -London is kitted out with traditional red phone boxes and brightly coloured Brighton beach huts, Zurich has ski gondolas and reclaimed original expedition igloos for meeting rooms – it also applies to the less ‘flashy’ stuff like meeting space allocation, tech-stop and micro-kitchen décor as well as individual desk personalisation.
Team belonging, where teams mark out a territory (which may have blurred boundaries). This can fuel positive inter-team competition, make way-finding easier and yet still allow flexible working within a defined area.
Personal belonging. People need the freedom to interpret this differently, and as an organisation, the interesting part is establishing the principles that provide guidelines to manage a cohesive look or feel, without being overly dictatorial. For some, personalisation is in the form of “trophies” of achievement (consumer feedback, performance data, product output, etc), for others it’s photographs of their nearest and dearest. Other people find surrounding themselves with stimulating images or objects can put them into a productive state. Personalisation does not have to mean allowing”junk” to accumulate on workstations; it can include personal touches in communal areas. At an adventure travel company I worked with in London, one employee was well-known for her green fingers, as over time she had created a mini oasis of plants around her desk. Her passion gardening has more recently extended to include the company’s reception area and outdoor spaces, and both she and her colleagues derive great pleasure from seeing the personal touch that she has added.
Space for Creativity
It’s no longer enough to expect people to turn up to work and just process information. Computers do it more quickly and efficiently. Many organisations have acknowledged the shift to a more innovation-driven economy, where cross-functional teams share and build upon knowledge, create, conceive new processes, services, products and methods. By definition the ability to create something new and appropriate, creativity is essential to the entrepreneurship that not only gets new businesses started it’s the lifeblood that sustains the best companies once they’ve reached global scale.
The innovation process itself requires many different modes of thinking throughout – from analytical decision-making through to care-free ‘blue sky’ thinking. These thinking modes – stimulation, where the mind is inspired or thought process triggered in some new way; reflection, a period of uninterrupted focus; collaboration, where ideas are shared and built, and play, where experimentation occurs – show up as different types of work. The physical environment should support these modes otherwise it will become a barrier and a source of stress or frustration.
Principles to create inspiring working environments
There are three clear principles that I believe, if followed, help to guide thinking and the design of inspiring working spaces. These hardy principles have stood the test of time and have guided some of the most successful spaces I have witnessed in business:
1. Nail the Needs
All too-often I see people rushing into space re-design without fully considering the essence of their needs. Once these are well established, then it’s time to roll in the designers to translate those needs onto visual and physical reality.
DreamWorks Animation SKG (California)
Rather than following the ‘de rigueur’ of open-plan spaces to encourage collaboration, DWA supported the needs of its creatives by clustering them in small pods. These ‘work dens’ were often dark (most animation work is carried out on screen), so to encourage people to get outside, take a breath of fresh air and bump into other colleagues, several outdoor devices lure people away from their desks to mingle. Of course in the UK we don’t have the luxury of year-round fair weather, but the principles hold true!
2. Brilliant Basics
When embarking on an office space transformation, often the basics are overlooked. In fact, paying attention to those small, sometimes invisible features of the working environment can make all the difference.
Google (London, New York, Zurich, Mountain View)
Google is known world-wide for its impressive working environment. Possibly more famous for its culture and workspaces than its products and services. The number one response when I ask people to name a company with a great working environment. But few appreciate that Google’s mantra is to deliver on the basics first, and deliver them well. This thinking has driven workspace innovations such as the 24-hour ‘Tech-stop’ for IT support, the ubiquitous ‘microkitchen’ and endless walls of whiteboards.
3. Iconic Touches
Once the first two have been established, it becomes easy to create those one or two really out-standing features that express the personality or uniqueness of a workspace. Importantly, these iconic touches should be deeply connected to the personality and culture of the people who work there.
Innocent Drinks (London)
It only takes one or two bold touches to create a compelling and memorable message that inspires both employees and on-lookers alike. Importantly, Innocent Drinks does not brandish its logo all over its workspace. Rather, the team has understood what lies at the heart of the brand and the company culture and used that as inspiration to inform some key spatial design choices. Its now-famous Astroturf flooring has been copied by others, but where it may be seen as ‘gimmicky’ or ‘whimsical’ in those spaces whose brand or culture does not align with it, for Innocent, it’s a natural choice.
4. Get People Involved
As already noted, it’s really the people who make a space come to life. So it stands to reason that involving people in the creation of an exciting working environment is a great way of engaging them through any transformations you may want to make. Eliciting contribution and feedback in the process of designing your spaces can not only provide essential information, managing their input into team and public spaces can make them feel they’re part of a community. At T-Mobile’s Innovation Centre in Seattle, teams competed to decorate the previously clinical and “bland” loos. The result was a wonderful set of themed areas (based on a pre-determined brief) that not only provided daily interest for colleagues, but also injected a real sense of ownership.
Implementing a workplace philosophy that is grounded in ‘agile’, ‘lean’ or ‘flexible’ ways of working can be the right choice for many organisations seeking to update and transform their environments, but this should be taken as a starting point – don’t rely on it as a silver bullet. Often what happens is a new trend in office design will be seen as a solution for a problem of the time – to the detriment of the business. This new buzz word can be implemented without acknowledging its appropriateness to the company in which it’s being applied. The most important thing to recognise is that what works for one business might not work for another and so understanding what makes the business tick – as well as having serious commitment and engagement from senior leaders – is essential.
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.