Breaking down the barriers to creativity

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By Beatriz Arantes

Edition 9 – December 2017 Pages 30-33

Tags: workplace design • management

In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida predicted that creativity would become a fundamental economic driver; that it would determine how the workplace is organised, which companies prosper or disappear, even which cities thrive or decline. And while his ideas may not have caught on at the time, with businesses firmly focused on productivity, efficiency and cost-cutting, fast-forward to 2017 and his predictions are now becoming reality. Creativity is rapidly moving up the business agenda, with nearly three quarters (72%) of workers believing their future success depends upon it.

Why creativity?

The creative shift has been driven by a number of interconnected trends that have combined to alter how we deliver success in the modern world. Today’s workplace is one of increasing complexity with circumstances changing rapidly and unexpectedly. With less time to make decisions, old hierarchies have broken down, and the need to respond, react, make decisions and solve problems is now required at all levels of an organisation.

Coupled with this is the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, which promise to completely restructure how work is carried out across a range of industries. Machines are taking on a large proportion of the transactional and process driven work, which leaves humans to focus on activities that are more unstructured; solving new problems and generating new ideas. All of this calls for more creativity.

Death of the creative ‘genius’

Added to these drivers is an evolution in attitudes towards creativity and what it means to be creative. In days gone by, organisations would turn to so-called “creative geniuses” to become innovative and competitive, believing that creativity was something only the blessed were born with and that insight struck as they were locked in a garage or lab by themselves. But views have moved on and it is now widely accepted that everybody has the innate ability to be creative, and creation happens in a supportive community.

Creativity constrained

Despite this shift in attitudes and the urgent need for more creative thinking, the majority of today’s organisations are still failing to provide the environment and conditions needed for creativity to become culturally ingrained.

This is backed up by research showing that two fifths (40 per cent) of workers say creativity is neither encouraged nor rewarded by their employer and two thirds (69 per cent) say they are not living up to their creative potential .

This failure comes down to the fact that creativity doesn’t just happen; it needs to be encouraged and supported in the context of a creative environment, where others are being creative, too. That’s why over the course of history we’ve seen examples of incredible creative movements, such as the Renaissance, when ideas have fed off each other to inspire numerous individuals and build a wide-reaching creative culture.

In contrast, today’s business world is too focused on ROI and too nervous about unpredictability to give employees the freedom to be creative. Creativity needs time and mental space to flourish, which doesn’t sit well with rigid timelines and deadlines. Boundaries are the enemy of creativity, which demands exposure to ideas from different industries and walks of life. It can’t be rewarded in the same way as more traditional workplace targets, nor isolated to one person; it takes a community for creativity to really thrive.

Rewiring workplace behaviour

All these restrictions and barriers have become wired into the way we work today, which is why organisations have to reimagine the workplace, to encourage the habits and behaviours where creativity can flourish. Harvard professor Shelley Carson explains in her book Your Creative Brain that distinct activation patterns in the brain have been associated with specific modes of creative thought. We cycle between different patterns, absorbing new information, connecting dots, imagining new possibilities, executing on those ideas, and then critiquing and improving them. The activities and tools we need to immerse ourselves properly in these different modes vary, and so the physical and cultural environment of the workplace play a role in facilitating the ebbs and flows of these thought patterns.

Designing for creativity

One way of building a culture of creativity is to look at the physical design of the workspace and how this can better inspire creative workstyles and behaviours.

At Steelcase, we’ve identified three core workspace design principles for how this can be done:

•A pleasant and relaxing atmosphere can help lower the mental filters and pressures that make us block our unusual ideas. Incorporating thoughtful design elements in the space and seating that encourages comfortable and varied postures fosters emotional connection with and amongst employees.

•Spaces can also nurture creative confidence by providing the right tools and technologies to encourage equal participation, as well as privacy when needed. For example, features such as vertical planes with writable surfaces make thinking visible and allowing others to create a shared understanding and build on each other’s ideas.

•When it comes to creativity, one size does not fit all. Employees should be supported through the different stages of creative thinking with a fluid ecosystem of zones, ranging from individual exploration to social connection, co-creation and evaluation. This gives employees the freedom to choose where and how they find their creative spark.

The courage to be creative

In a world where change and uncertainty have become the norm, and where technology is infiltrating so many aspects of work, employees must be empowered to draw on what makes them human. The power to be creative is within everybody, but organisations need the courage to allow it to flourish. Doing so won’t just drive greater innovation and business growth, it will also help build a more fulfilled and engaged workforce, ready and confident to face the future W&P

Beatriz Arantes

Beatriz Arantes is the manager of Steelcase’s global research and foresight group WorkSpace Futures in EMEA, based in the Munich Learning + Innovation Center. She has spent the last 10 years researching the impact of work and work environments on performance and wellbeing. A global nomad, she has lived in eight different countries and today holds degrees in psychology from Brown University in the United States, a degree in clinical and organizational psychology from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil, and Master’s in applied environmental psychology from the Université René Descartes in Paris. Having been confronted with a variety of cultures and standards of living, she is passionate about understanding and improving people’s lives. WorkSpace Futures is a multidisciplinary group of researchers from the fields of architecture, industrial, interior and end user design, engineering, ergonomics and economics.


…Creativity is rapidly moving up the agenda, with nearly three quarters of workers believing their future success depends on it…

…In a world where change and uncertainty have become the norm, and where technology is infiltrating so many aspects of work, employees must be empowered to draw on what makes them human …


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