How to create an innovative workspace

No, coffee is not required. Not that it hurts.  Neither is beer, which can (or bottle).

But I digress.

People who know me know that I believe that “words mean something.”  So let’s define what “environment” is, since it’s usually used interchangeably with “culture” and “climate.”

Climate refers to the “mood” of the organization, or “the way things are.”  Culture represents the norms, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the organization, or the “maze-ways” of the organization – the ways to navigate the maze of the organization to get things done (regardless of the employee manual or org chart). And environment is made up of the aspects of the atmosphere or physical space that can be seen.

To sum up: climate = the way things are. Culture = how things get done. Environment = what you see.

In our white paper, David Horth and I refer to the combination of these three as “context.”

But what about the physical space? Just how funky, mod, and cool does it have to be to inspire innovation?  After all, during the dot-com boom years, it was imperative that every organization have scooters and a game room.  One of the most creative ad agencies in L.A. has a game room. Yet in the headquarters of one blue-chip corporation I toured, the game room was pointed out to me as “the place in which you spend time if you want to get fired.”  Oh.

You’d think with all the money organizations spend on architects and interior designers, we’d be creating these amazing spaces that exponentially lift the rates of innovation.  Unfortunately, the truth is that there’s no universal design for creative thinking and innovation that works for everyone.  Looking at well-known writers, George Kneller in his book, The Art And Science Of Creativity noted,  “Schiller, for example, filled his desk with rotten apples; Proust worked in a cork-lined room; Dr. Johnson surrounded himself with a purring cat, orange peel and tea; Hart Crane played jazz loud on a Victrola…An extreme case is Kant, who would work in bed at certain times of the day with the blankets arranged around him in a way he had invented himself.”

Based on the work of researchers Dunn, Dunn, and Price, I created a list of questions to ask as you think about designing a space that works for you, and think about designing a space that’s flexible enough to work for others as well since EVERYBODY HAS DIFFERENT PREFERENCES. That person who got her best ideas in her workspace had just finished a project in which the corporation tasked her with coordinating the division workspace that would foster innovation.  And it was perfect…for her.

Here are some physical space considerations:

  • At what sort of work surface do you work best? (desk, lab bench, lap desk, floor, grass)
  • What sort of seating area do you prefer? (straight-backed chair, lazy-boy recliner, swivel chair, bed, floor)
  • What kind of stimulus do you need around you? (plants, pictures, windows, sculpture, television, yo-yo, slinky, charts, co-workers)
  • What kind of light do you need? (natural, artificial, bright, dim, direct, indirect)
  • Do you need to be warm or cold? (thermostat, heaters, air conditioner, sweaters, fans)
  • Do you need activity around you? (movement, conversation, kids playing, factory floor, coffee shop, busy street, retail environment, park)
  • Do you need intake? (Coffee, water, tea, Coca-Cola, cookies, fruit, jelly beans, snacks, Ginger Snaps)
  • Do you need a sparse environment or a cluttered one (lots of piles or a clean desk)
  • Do you want noise around you? (Silence, classical music, birds chirping, lapping waves, factory noise, kids playing, loud rock & roll)
  • What about movement? (room to walk, your car, exercise equipment, chained to your chair)
  • When do you work best? (if at night, where can you work?  If during the morning or afternoon, how to keep people away? If during meals, how can you eat and work?)
  • What materials do you need to do your thinking? (drawing paper, computer, mobile device, note pad, canvas, clay, chemicals, building materials, blackboard)

As you plan your space, think also about the three basic functions of workspace:

  1. Thinking (e.g. contemplative work, writing, planning, reading, etc.)
  2. Communicating (e.g. meeting, consultations, e-mail, paperwork, phone calls, social networking)
  3. Working (e.g. paperwork, putting out metaphorical “fires,” doing your “job”)

Your mix of how much time you spend at each function will vary. So keep in mind these elements as you create a space that will foster innovation for you and others.  I’ve worked in everything from mansions built in the late 1800s to spare bedrooms to modern office complexes to a custom-designed campus. Each of these places had things that worked and things that didn’t…for me.  And I was able to add elements to make the space work for me, even if that meant leaving my office to go somewhere else to meet, communicate, or work.

So take a look around and think about how you can make your space work better for you. What ideas can you share with others?

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About Jonathan Vehar

As a Senior Faculty member at CCL and subject-matter expert in innovation, Jonathan’s education and extensive experience in program design serves the Center in his design and delivery responsibilities for various Global Solutions clients, as well as his delivery responsibilities for various open enrollment programs. Jonathan is also an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University, the Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York, Ithaca College and the Creative Problem Solving Institute.
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4 Responses to How to create an innovative workspace

  1. avatar Roopak says:

    Excellent research based article mapping concepts of
    Climate culture environment with simple stuff to drive
    Innovation!! Thank you

  2. avatar Jonathan says:

    Roopak, glad you found it helpful!

  3. avatar Lorin K Mask says:

    Nice article with how to’s – most blogs talk about problems but not solutions. This had some great questions. I’ll file this one away! Simple and easy. Thanks, Lorin

  4. avatar Jonathan says:

    That’s great feedback, thanks!

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