Mental and Physical Rooms: removing obstacles for your creatives

Every discipline has its fetishes – inanimate objects attributed with magical properties. (Analysts have spreadsheets, consultants have models, but creatives? If there’s a consensus – and we are talking about creatives here – it may be Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, patron of arts and sciences and the deva (deity) of intellect and wisdom who is a) principally known as the remover of obstacles, and b) associated particularly with merchants and traders. These two attributes are not entirely unconnected.

If you look back through the online archives of The Guardian’s Writers Room series, you will probably be struck by the individuality of not just the rooms, but the elements that creatives as diverse as David Starkey, Richard Sennett and Will Self choose to stress. Or, as Philip Hensher said:

I’ve never written successfully at a desk – whenever anyone tries to give me a desk, it always fills up immediately with old bits of paper, and, after a week or two, I go back to writing on the end of the dining table, clearing it all up before dinner.”

Beyond their idiosyncrasy, these individuals have little in common beyond perhaps a certain messiness and an occasional tendency to illicit pleasure (Martin Amis says of his writing room that “It’s ideal – you can’t hear the children and you can smoke”, while Richard Sennett – whose The Craftsman we reviewed here previously – confessing to using a 15 year old word processing program about which he confessed “the IT department has decided that it is an “illegitimate” piece of software – which makes for a certain thrill”).

Yet, while few of the subjects are Hindus and many are possibly atheists, a statuette of Ganesh is their most commonly owned item, and it is the association with the removal of blockages that is the reason that explains its presence. Think of Ganesh as symbolic of what each is trying to achieve – an environment in which they can work best, a personal space that works for them while accommodating the needs and requirements of the other inhabitants.

Where and how we work are closely related to each other, and impact similarly closely on our outputs. (If you’re not familiar with it, read about the story of MIT’s Building 20 – and Microsoft’s Building 99, which it inspired – in one of our earlier posts: interior design and innovation are related in more ways than one.) Job design – how the content and structure of what we do during the day optimise opportunities, play to and extend our strengths or avoid problems further down the line – is often a topic of HR and L&D debate. Yet the environments in which these jobs play out are often given less attention: the design of ‘the workplace’ – one of the most over-used words of our time? – is often seen as having moved from being an issue that either still belongs in the estates and facilities remit, or which is now influenced by an idea of branding: office design as visual branding.

There’s a question in the by-line of a 2012 Guardian article that begs a question:

Taking Google’s lead, the office as a playground is back in fashion, but if ditching formality suits your business and means contented staff, what’s not to like?”

But it’s not always asked, or answered. Building 99 was consciously designed around the needs of the people who would work in it, although it is easy to wonder if this seemingly primary need is always factored in. I know, for example, of a University faculty where academics – who generally appreciate quiet working environments with few distractions – are not only now working in an open plan environment that many find challenging, but where putting a bookcase (even now, a primary working tool for these professionals) next to your desk is actually banned. It’s a point explored in a BBC News article from earlier this year, The pleasures and perils of the open-plan office, which highlights national cultural differences (open-plan is a UK/US trend, but not a European one) and – perhaps unfashionably – cites a Swedish research report, Difference in satisfaction with office environment among employees in different office types:

The most dissatisfaction is reported in medium and large open-plan offices, where the complaints about noise and lack of privacy are especially negative.”

And some of our ‘work spaces’ are no longer even personal or fixed, geographically: nowadays we have hot-desking. Interesting, North America rejects that label and prefers ‘hotelling’. I couldn’t help but remember that age old maternal cliché – “You treat this place like a hotel” – and wonder if it is now the organisation and not the employees treating the place that way, possibly as it is concerned more with turnover and occupancy than with personalisation or comfort. (For every boutique pied-a-terre experience in the world, there are many more motels.)

Managing space, décor and noise (an often ignored factor) is a complex equation, but the creative world provides at least argument against an easy ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, as American novelist and university lecturer J Robert Lennon reflects in one recent blog. As he argues, the most likely outcome of imposing a mantra “ass + chair + write” is a stiff bottom and a blank sheet of paper. Rather than simplistic approaches, he counsels that understanding people’s needs is the basis for providing better advice:

Here’s the correct way to advise somebody: Love them. Respect them. Know them. Read their stuff, understand where they’re coming from.”

He may be writing from a specific focus, but this surely isn’t advice that is too difficult to translate to other disciplines – indeed, understanding individual needs and drivers is a cornerstone of good management. Ask yourself how your organisation works with its creative elements. Does it send them process manuals and diagrams, or does it spark their interest with links to interesting thinking about creativity at work? If you’d like to turn over a new leaf, here’s one that you can forward: a piece by Jeffrey Davis about “mental rooms” as a tool for creative organisation.

Just remember that the physical environment is a big part of the working experience: could small changes make a big difference there too? Are spaces for exchanges that are intended to be warm and personal actually spaces that are bland, cold or impersonal? This isn’t simply to advocate anarchy or wrecking balls: our environments affect us. We may not all be as witty as Oscar Wilde – a man creatively misquoted on this particular point many, many times – but sometimes it’s honest to agree with him:

This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

Working with people to identify how to help them do their best is about leadership, not control. As The Work Foundation pointed out in their report into exceptional leadership – Exceeding Expectations: The Principles of Outstanding Leadership:

Good leaders were less likely than outstanding leaders to link processes to outcomes and were more focused on ensuring compliance.”

Outstanding leaders are also listeners: they use their ears before they reach for the graph-paper or the contact list of architects, and this might be the most important point of all. I can’t comment on their ergonomic prowess, but the articles from the BBC and The Guardian cited above are the work of experienced journalists who know to make telling final points in their concluding paragraphs. Here are how their stories ended:

BBC: But to give employees the freedom to wander about with their laptops, hiding from colleagues or seeking them out as they wish, may mean some organisations have to rethink the way they work and communicate.

“The building’s easy, the architecture’s easy,” says Duffy [Frank Duffy CBE, British architect]. “It’s thinking about how to use the buildings that really is challenging.”

The Guardian: Indeed, recent research by property company Goodman into what workers want found only 3% thought that slides between floors were the future (12% preferred sleep pods, and 38% just wanted a better coffee machine). Similarly, when Rackspace designed its UK office – its four floors and central atrium just crying out for a slide – when asked, employees said they didn’t want one.

Much to project leader (and “Racker”) Jamie Kinch’s surprise: “Rackers said it was really cool, but they’d rather see the money invested in other things. I was shocked. But they preferred to invest in technology in the meeting rooms for video conferencing. Sometimes you can kid yourselves into thinking they just want all this flash stuff, but getting the basics working well is important too.” The stairs it is, then.”

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