An Open Space For Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram’s cutting edge open-plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s new ‘creative’ space at Broadcasting House, London 

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.



I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I’ll be in touch.

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