Does your office kill or encourage creativity?

Do offices kill creativity? It depends.

Ok, but do certain types of offices stifle or encourage creative thinking? Are open office floor plans more creatively stimulating than cubicle farms? Do workspaces that have fun things like ping-pong tables or free snacks help encourage workers to be more creative? What about working from a beach resort or high in the mountains, do those types of nomad workers tend to be more creative?

The answer, again, for each of these is: it depends. Let’s look to the science.

We know from decades of anecdotal and lab research that to think creatively requires just a few key things:

  1. Exposure and openness to new experiences or stimulation
  2. Opportunities to play or experiment
  3. Space to ruminate and let ideas incubate
  4. The ability to take action and evolve ideas
  5. Some type of validation to continue and promote creative thinking

If we look at any study around the creative process these things each pop-up in some form or another. And if we take each of these things and try to apply them to office workspaces we’ll see some interesting things.

You may be familiar with some of these concepts as they relate to the offices of companies like Pixar, Apple, and Nike. These are often big, open, and almost playful offices which tout themselves as being creatively emplowering for employees.

I don’t work in a typical office space myself. I actually work in the world’s largest open-office at Facebook in Menlo Park, California.

On the face of things, it’s easy to see how Facebook’s office might meet the requirements of promoted creative thinking. We have massive, open areas where we work because the theory is that being able to see what other people are working on, or bumping into a peer randomly on your way to the bathroom, are good ways to promote exposure to experiences and inspiration.

We promote play and experimentation through ping-pong tables, an on-site arcade, colorful posters dotting every wall, and by hosting occasional “hackathons” where anyone can work on anything for two or three days out of the quarter.

Facebook also has spaces specifically designed for rumination: tucked away, private “libraries” are sound-proofed and offer employees a place to work quietly without distraction. If you ever visit the office you’ll also see incredible walking paths around our campus as well as on the massive rooftop park.

I could go on and on about how these things relate, but the important thing to note is that, while these things do help facilitate creative thinking, it’s hard to say whether or not they actively promote it. I’d even argue that they don’t.

Let’s look at a different real-world example: I have a friend who works in a sea of cubicles. His work space is just one in a row of many, each blocked off by a four-foot high gray wall. It sounds drab to me, and he’d probably agree.

He doesn’t have private libraries, a rooftop park, fully-stocked kitchens, or a full cafe to get free lunch from. He doesn’t even have a ping-pong table. But he does have a small, shared kitchen where he can microwave and eat his home-prepared lunch with his peers.

This friend of mine undoubtedly has space to ruminate as a result, and he may have some exposure to experiences in his weekly team meetings or during lunch hour, but what about the other stuff that creativity thrives on? What about being able to take action on ideas, or getting validation for a good idea, or being willing to play and experiment?

These are all really valid questions (which is why I’m writing them) but let me set the record straight: what matters most in an office setting when it comes to creativity is the close community. No amount of colorful paint, kicked-down walls, or free food, will make employees more or less creative.

Put smart enough and motivated enough people into an office of any size, shape, or style, and you’ll notice something interesting happen: those who are creatively driven turn the space into what they need it to be.

This is because creativity doesn’t happen in the office. It doesn’t even really happen in the world, creativity happens in the mind. And what each of these common office designs try to do are shape the way employees think or feel.

And sometimes this works! Having free food available to employees can definitely help them think more about the problems they’re solving in their work and less about what they need to eat for lunch. But free food isn’t going to encourage anyone to work hard.

Having a rooftop park gives employees a great space to walk and think beneath an open sky, but that park isn’t going to do anyone any good if employees aren’t using it.

Placing a pingpong or foosball table in your office is a reasonable signal that having fun and playing during work hours are acceptable to your business. But playing a table game isn’t the same thing as experimenting with a project that could cost the business money.

So yes, offices can affect the face value of creativity. But no, real creativity happens in the minds of workers. And to get workers to think creatively requires more than physical or aesthetic structures. To get employees to think creatively requires training and a culture of working that actively promotes exploring, experimentation, rumination, taking action, and validation that even if you fail it’s ok to pursue wacky ideas.

The most creative teams I know have worked in many different types of offices. What makes them creative isn’t the office spaces, it’s the culture around the work and what the team deems as acceptable versus not.

You can put a bunch of toys on employees desks and paint the walls bright colors in an attempt to loosen up the creative bolts, but unless employees can see and act on the real facilitators of creative thinking, it’s all just for show.