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.
I had the chance to visit and run a workshop in the offices of Red Bull Dubai back in April, spending 3-4 days there, where I got a real taste of what makes it such an energetic place to work in – even without drinking the iconic energy drink!
I spoke with the “Head Coach” (HC) for Middle East and Asia Pacific (MEAP), who struck me as genuinely passionate about the business, the people he works with and the space they work in. After the tour and interview, he asked not to be named, because for him it would be sending the wrong message: the creation of this new, exciting environment is not about him receiving glory for a beautiful space; it’s all about the creation of a place that inspires the whole team, and one that they all play a huge part in.
As the elevator doors open onto the 4th floor of this commercial building in Dubai’s Airport Free Zone, the standardised uniformity of the surrounding services offices is challenged – Red Bull style. An immediate statement is made as you step into the office – greeted by a what looks like part of a giant Red Bull can – which is in fact a salvaged KLM 747 jet engine cowling repurposed into a reception desk. Dutch designer XXXX was commissioned to create the desk not only to reflect the brand’s love for precision and showmanship; his brief included a specific request to lower the leading edge, ensuring eye contact between the sparky and attractive “Ambassadors” and any visitors who come to call.
The experience here is as important as the design details and material finishes. And these two elements are evident throughout the place, driven by two needs that create an environment that at once demonstrates the spirit of the company and also serves to support the business to achieve its ambitious goals.
Drivers for change
The catalyst for this transformation back in April 2013 was a need for more space – as the company continued to grow in size, and HC also wanted to create a ‘positive shock’; the physical space became a tool to help communicate the spirit of a new chapter in the business growth. HC saw this as an opportunity to not just revamp their existing space but to reinforce a new directive and embed some of the behaviours to support the change the business wanted to see.
Where the previous space was standardised, the new space is unique. Where the old offices were closed, here it’s open. Where before you could have been in the offices of any insurance company or bank, there’s no mistaking that you’ve walked into the heart of one of the most vibrant brands in the world. White dominates, giving the whole office a bright, fresh and positive air, inspite of relatively low ceilings – and throughout, splashes of the familiar silver, red and blue provide an injection of energy.
The brand’s four main areas of focus are showcased in glass-fronted meeting rooms – all instantly visible from reception: Field– celebrating sport and in particular football (soccer) – turf and field markings with replica stadium lights; Pitstop – a nod to Red Bull’s huge involvement in Formula 1 racing – tarmac-like flooring , dynamic sweep through the ceiling and a real wing from a former F1 car; Street – Round table like a stage – platform for Red Bull’s involvement in street culture: breakdancing and music; Gallery – sculptural mural with the Art of Can.
Formula for success
In HC’s view basic condition for success is down to two elements: the right environment plus the right platform. Here, it’s about enabling people through open, professional, high quality, fully-fitted workspace with sound infrastructure, and combining it with the cultural platform of “positive energy”. Each meeting room is kitted out with best-in-class audio, projection and tech equipment that anyone can use whenever they need it. “The technology here is to serve us to do better.” With all the event and production content the team needs to share with each other, it has to be “top notch” in order to to optimize the experience – imagine trying to convey the energy and exhilaration of a envelope-pushing event like Red Bull X-fighters, or the F1 stunt a-top the Burj Al-Arab on a laptop screen!
“We set the bar high. When people come here they know that is Red Bull is providing an environment to the highest standard than we should we expect high standards in the work that we do.”
THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT + THE RIGHT [CULTURAL] PLATFORM = SUCCESS
The working environment at Red Bull Dubai enables people to think. And to think differently. “If you want to get out of the box you need to have a different environment, “ says HC. The meeting rooms by themselves are inspiring. And there are plans to develop a different floor in the building to build a creative space and hall of fame. A flexible drop-in space with college chairs and Fat Boys(TM) and plenty of wall space.
So what’s the verdict a year on? HC is really proud of the team and what they have achieved with the space and business results.
The impact this has had is threefold: business performance is up, the bottom line has been affected and the right cultural values reinforced. Teams are more exposed to each other, communication is more fluid, more direct and less formal. Business targets have been smashed this year, compared with a struggling period before the transformation.
The return on investment has been significant, too: whilst the investment on the space was considerable, meetings are now held on-site, versus hotels. “So we’re saving money. I tell you – if we rented our meeting spaces out – and I have been asked many times – the space would be making a profit!”
For HC, it’s visible: “After a year, everything is still very white! People really look after it. I think that re-confirms the importance of taking care of the place we work in, and it reflects the care we take in the work we do.”
“When my team brings their friends and family to see where they work – they’re really proud too. They have a sense of belonging and when I see that it reassures me that the investment made has been well placed.”
White dominates, providing a refreshing and positive ambiance in absence of high ceiling
Sliding doors on meeting rooms and enclosed office spaces include acoustic barrier properties
Partitions hang from ceilings with acoustic baffling
Herman Miller furniture chosen – functional/practical/heavy duty
Overall style ambition is relaxing and comfortable; health is high priority, as most people sit for long periods
L-shape desk configurations allow people to focus on screen and people to talk/collaborate at desks
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).
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.
Creative cultures are made when passionate people become aligned around a common purpose, a set of values and a yet they remain free to be themselves. Creative workspaces support the behaviours and activities that are required of these people. They bolster a company attitude, reflect a brand’s personality and reinforce a way of doing things. However, the physical environment alone cannot sustain a culture of innovation; it is the responsibility of leaders within the business to role model and endorse the right behaviours in and around the workplace
1. Give people the freedom to choose where they work
The environment can be a highly effective tool for stimulating the right mindset for problem solving and creative thinking. But sitting in the same place all day everyday is not great for supporting the variety of tasks people need to do. So balance out the need for feeling ‘at home’ and the need for variety by providing a shared team base and a number of different settings that people can choose relating to the type of work they need to do.
2. Don’t scrimp on collaboration areas
When space gets tight, think creatively about how to preserve areas for both formal and casual meetings. Generating a creative buzz amongst colleagues is easier when they have ample opportunities to bounce thoughts and ideas. Rather than converting that meeting room into more desking, look at ways of rearranging workstations to free up space to huddle. Remember, a cosy corner with a few sofas or a bar-style café area can take up very little space – collaboration rooms don’t need to have four walls.
3. Limit the budget
Great creative spaces don’t have to cost a fortune! Many exciting spaces are made using reclaimed furniture and objects. People become very resourceful and very creative when given a budget to stick to – it can be fun! Many of Google Zurich’s 100-or-so meeting spaces were created by in-house teams who found ski gondolas and former Antarctic expedition igloos for their offices.
4. Introduce some friendly competition
Empowering teams of people to decorate their spaces raises the excitement as well as the standards achieved! Choosing a number of spaces that are not customer-facing (the loos are a good place to start) and setting a broad theme is a great way to lower any ‘fear factor’ that may creep in about getting it ‘wrong’. You’ll be amazed by what people can achieve.
5. Engineer collisions (use food as a lure)
Many great ideas are shared and built serendipitously. It’s not enough to sit back an hope that people will somehow have to opportunity to cross-fertilise their brains with people who are not in direct contact with them everyday (ie: in their team). So it’s important to create many opportunities for people to bump into each other casually throughout the day. Food and drinks points are a great way of doing this. Consider providing free tea/coffee or even breakfast foods and fruit for your employees. (it’s surprisingly cheap, but people really see it as a perk!)
6. Use ‘dead space’ to breathe life into the business
Hallways and circulation spaces are often overlooked as tools for communicating to people and generating excitement about the company. Hang stimulating art, soon-to-be-released products, updates on the business or information about people in the company and even holding meetings along well-trodden paths are great ways of generating a buzz. Keep them changing to keep people’s attention.
7. The writing’s on the wall
Create plenty of opportunities for people to write their ideas and share their thoughts up on the walls for other to see. ‘Shared thinking’ is an important part of the creative process, allowing ideas to be developed and honed as they happen. Don’t limit this valuable thinking real estate to just a few whiteboards in enclosed meeting rooms, paint walls and doors with chalkboard paint, transform entire surfaces into whiteboards, or even allow people to write on windows. And make sure there’s an abundant supply of colourful, chunky marker pens or chalk!
8. Change the pace throughout the working day
The creative brain works best when it is fed a problem and then allowed to reflect upon it. In business, we tend to go at our day at 100 miles an hour, pausing only sip some caffeine before we jump back on the treadmill. Design opportunities for people to slow down into their daily paths. Whether it’s a zig-zag path (DreamWorks Animation), a fishtank (Bloomberg), a nap pod (P&G) or places to play games (EA and LEGO), encouraging people to slow down will give them the breathing space they need to really think.
9. Create places to escape
Sometimes we just need to get messy to create. But often, especially with ‘clean desk’ policies, people do not feel free to try out their ideas – warts and all. Providing spaces where teams can hide away uninterrupted gives them permission to experiment without fear of judgement.
10. Get offsite
Even the most creative people in the most companies with the most creative offices need to go offsite. Getting away from the hyper-connectivity that we’ve become accustomed to in today’s wireless world is essential for ensuring a team achieves focus. Whether it is a project-based think tank style space like P&G’s clay street project or a place to go for shorter meetings, make sure that the place is set up to challenge thinking and the rules are: there are no rules…(or there are no Smart Phones).