Design Principles for Work and Learning Environments

Modern working practices make it more important than ever that firms can create working environments that foster collaboration and wellbeing

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By Christine Kohlert and Scott Cooper
Edition 9 – December 2017 Pages 19-23

The difference between churning out another aircraft engine on an assembly line and developing an engine that can help an airline do its job better is creativity. Creative knowledge work is flourishing. As algorithms and robots replace jobs once done by humans, companies look for ways to leverage the human brain to work on things the robots cannot do—like being creative in finding solutions to problems and in developing “innovations” in the form of new businesses, products, and services. The automation of mundane work activities unleashes tremendous opportunity for focusing workers creatively.

If robots can do most of the work to build the cars at an auto manufacturer, it frees up that company’s employees to think and create the next big thing. Maybe that is a self-driving car, but maybe it is the flying cars those of us old enough to remember were promised by the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Or maybe it is some way of transporting that we cannot even imagine.

Making it possible to work creatively and generate knowledge is one of the biggest challenges companies face. It calls for training and retraining. It demands new skills, not of the hands but of the mind. It has spurred rethinking about how work is organized and how it is valued. Other factors linked to the change in work are also impelling companies to change. Millennials view employment differently from previous generations, and what they value in their jobs and workplaces have significant ramifications. On top of that, more and more people work on contract rather than in what used to be jobs for life. Workers come and go, jumping not only from job to job but also sometimes from workplace to workplace within a particular job.

Companies around the world are anxious to find the “secret” to how they can support creativity among their workers and succeed in knowledge work. Researchers offer some insights.

For instance, Theresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School who has been studying creativity in the workplace for more than thirty years, points to several aspects of the work environment that stimulate creativity: organizational support for new ideas; positive challenges for employees; autonomy in how day-to-day work gets done, along with a sense of ownership and control; resources, including information and materials; and positive challenges with respect to workloads. She also notes all sorts of organizational impediments to creativity as well as obstacles from workload pressures.

Space to support creativity

Whether anyone can settle on a single definition of knowledge work or even creativity, there is no denying the significant implications of the shift. Among these, the question of what kind of physical space is best for creative knowledge work has been posed. The answers so far are quite varied—not as far-flung as the architectural differences of the built world, but certainly not conclusive. Experimentation is rampant as those designing spaces for creative knowledge work try to find the optimal solutions.

To help figure out the direction designers ought to take, two scholars at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art, Catherine Greene and Jeremy Myerson, explored “types” of knowledge workers and developed a categorization scheme based on worker mobility and motivation. They began with the premise that genuine knowledge work has a creative component and that creativity is supported in the most effective knowledge-worker offices. They identified different types of knowledge workers: ones who generally work at their desks are key to knowledge transfer, prefer schedules, require concentration time; ones who roam around a lot at the workplace, depend on interaction, and need to work freely and visually; and others who spend most of their time away from the office. They conclude: “[W]e are faced with a very complex set of requirements. If we take these as our premise for the design brief, we must go beyond the traditional remit of office design.”

This, in part, explains why the physical workspace has been changing so dramatically. Many of the changes have been promoted by two disciplines: human factors and ergonomics, with its focus on wellbeing, and environmental psychology, with a focus not only on wellbeing but more specifically on how experiences in the physical world, with places and objects, influence human thoughts and behaviors.

Without going deeply into these disciplines, what is most important here is that the underlying idea of making workspaces in which we are happier and thus more creative has caught on, and has even become an imperative for companies designing new workspaces or altering existing spaces. While many projects stop at providing basic functional support for work and a variety of spaces people can use for different kinds of tasks, the trend is growing; after all, what business does not want to foster creativity among its workers?

Our book shows examples of experimentation with how space can be designed to meet that objective—with the understanding that a space designated specifically for “creativity” or “innovation” may be a space in which all behaviors and activities one associates with the creative “process” play out, but that deliberate spaces all share in common that at best they can facilitate those behaviors and activities.

There is never any guarantee that anything creative or innovative will emerge. To put it another way, there has been extensive research that hospital rooms should be designed to promote healing, psychological wellbeing, and efficient provision of care, and yet the most “perfect” hospital room cannot guarantee that a patient will not die.

Still, though, there is a growing use of so-called “innovation spaces” designed with the belief that the right kind of space can make creative work happen. Many companies have jumped on a kind of design bandwagon that has seen the emergence of so-called “Innovation Labs” around the world, particularly in Europe. Often, they are cookie-cutter versions of what some people believe are the main elements required for a space that supports creative knowledge workers.

Nevertheless, those elements themselves matter. They are a key focus of our book. We delve into some of the underlying conceptual elements of what makes for “good” space for creative thinking and learning: six dimensions of wellbeing and four categories of behavior that designers can use as high-level targets to hit as they design spaces for creative thinking and turn ideas into actual blueprints.

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