Does Your Workplace Affect Creativity? Mostly No

There’s a misguided trend in looking to architecture to explain why some groups of people are creative and others are not. A well designed workplace may be beneficial, but it’s not an essential factor. The long history of innovation, in the centuries before electricity and elevators, shows how much creative work can be done without regard to workspace design.

Put simply: a good team will help each other be productive in a cave. A bad team will make each other miserable in the fanciest building in the world.

Yet articles in the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post and Fast Company point to office design, suggesting the environment has primacy over determining which groups of people will be creative and which ones won’t.  MIT’s famous building 20, is frequently referenced and studied, with some architects assuming if they emulate its elements they’ll see similar results. Where this line of thinking fails is its lack of accounting for most breakthroughs in the history of the world.

A huge percentage of them took place in environments that fail most of the standards for “creative workplaces” or “dynamic work environments”.  Take as significant examples:

  • The Manhattan Project (cheap military housing in the desert)
  • The Apollo 11 moon landing (ordinary offices/cubicles)
  • Any company that started in a garage (Google, Apple, HP, Amazon, Disney)
  • Any band that started in a garage (Nirvana, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater)
  • The Wright brothers (bike shop)
  • The Internet and the Web (ordinary academic research labs)

Look at the timeline of the greatest inventions throughout history. Or the greatest paintings.  Most of them were made before electricity, before air conditioning, before a hundred comforts and conveniences we take for granted in all of our offices. Cherry picking recent breakthroughs and wrapping a theory around them is confirmation bias. Innovation and invention have been going on for millennia and any theory must include the past as well as the present.

Some articles point to the stimulating effects of some buildings, as the design forces people to mingle and interact in positive ways. I agree this can be an asset. But there is no rule that says this kind of stimulation can only happen at work. Many creative people throughout history found this kind of stimulation primarily at cafes, pubs, neighborhoods, libraries or parks.

Of course had these people been in better architected work environments they might have had even better results. And any leader of any organization should want to provide the best possible environment for their workers. But the primary reason great work happened had little to do with the special characteristics of workplaces. They achieved  great work in very ordinary and unremarkable environments.

Architecture is important and can definitely influence culture and behavior, it’s just not a primary factor. The talents of the people you’re working with are how well you relate to each other trumps everything.

[minor edits: 3-16-15]

12 Responses to “Does Your Workplace Affect Creativity? Mostly No”

  1. Matt

    Isn’t there a difference between Steve Jobs and the legions of employees he needed to inspire to follow him? Steve and Woz may not have needed anything but a garage at first, but what about the thousands of other Apple employees that needed inspiration to keep the train moving throughout the years? I’m not talking about Ive and other high level innovators. I’m talking about the average bookkeeper, QA person, email newsletter designer, etc. They all matter and I wonder if well designed spaces help attract them and keep them engaged.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I think that of course the physical environment can help, but it doesn’t help much above a certain basic level, a level that most modern work environments have.

      Apple isn’t the best example since the culture is so hierarchical there isn’t much expectation of mass creativity, certainly for products. A small number of people drive product design while the majority of employees work in highly specialized roles.

      It’s also important to note the distinction between motivation and creativity. Someone can be inspired and happy to do their job, even if there work is repetitive or unchallenging. And the opposite is true as well: there can be environments that are intellectually stimulating, but where an employees boss is so bad at their job that employees have little motivation to perform well.

  2. Sam

    What architect wouldn’t be an advocate for the benefits of thoughtful design?

    There is no substitute for talented people dedicated to achieving a shared vision. Groups like that can overcome virtually any obstacle, poor lighting or lumbar support being perhaps the most trivial.

    Unfortunately, half of us are below average and we’ve got to make due. A quality workspace has merit even if the only result is that people are happier being non-innovative and mediocre.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Why is it disturbing? I’m not suggesting killing people from the sky is a good thing to do. However making the atomic bomb was a very difficult thing requiring an amazing amount of creativity. Some of the ideas developed in Los Alamos did have positive uses as often is the case in developing new ideas, regardless of the initial intent.

      The ethics of making weapons is beyond the scope of this post. I don’t know the right answer, but I do know that it was believed we were not the only nation developing the same technology. Are the makers of a tool ethically responsible for the choice to use it, even during wartime? I honestly don’t know.

      1. james wray

        Regardless of the intent, the creativity and skill has to be noted and respected. Because things were used in a manner in which many would disagree, you can not discredit the creativity or ability of it’s maker/makers. There have been tons of very creative people who have used their amazing abilities for harmful or negative production.

  3. Sean

    I’ve had the opportunity to work and manage in a variety of company cultures. Both startups in hip brick loft spaces and cubical farms of a large enterprise. The two things that seem to matter to creative people are: Access to natural light and access to people to discuss their ideas. If your current environment cuts off either of those, you’re doing it wrong. Heck even when Steve and Woz were tinkering away in the garage, I bet the door was open and they talked a lot to each other.

  4. Jason Preston

    So it takes me two weeks to leave a comment on your post here… ;)

    I think we’d all be hard-put to come up with real evidence of a causal relationship between the environment and the creative results, but at the same time I think the correlation is fairly apparent.

    I don’t think that cafes, pubs, and the like should be disqualified as creative environments simply because they’re not offices.

    It’s also worth noting that one aspect that’s been identified as a benefit to creativity is shoddyness: it’s apparently good for those working in a space to actually feel OK about tearing out walls or otherwise modifying the space to suit their needs. That’s a lot easier to get away with if everyone thinks the building is junk. So cheap military housing in the desert may have been close to ideal.

    Ultimately I think the takeaway is this: if you can modify your environment, through architecture or otherwise, to encourage creative output, then you should do so.

  5. Devdas Bhagat

    Workplaces are hygiene factors. They might not add to creativity beyond a certain point, but they sure can take away from it.

  6. Scott

    To put it another way:

    A good team will help each other be productive in a cave. A bad team will make each other miserable in the fanciest building in the world. (#)



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