Inspiration is fickle. We all seek it, in the form of the eureka moment, The Next Big Idea, innovation, or “vision.” Inspiration is a big mood. It’s disruption. It’s what drives art, tech, and business.
But where do we find it in the workplace? In many ways offices seem designed to keep the muse at bay. Workplace design typologies identify specific work modes such as focus, collaboration, learning, socializing, and rejuvenation. Design oriented toward providing office zones based on these typologies has tended to result in a rather prescribed environment. Open office plans give us a buzz of connectivity, and small enclosed rooms provide places to focus. We collaborate in conference rooms, learn in training or all-hands spaces, and socialize in lounges or cafe spaces. The environment is efficient.
The individual pursuit of the muse, however, is what Haworth, in their research, calls an “inefficient” task. Inefficiency is the very definition of musing. It involves staring into the distance. Pacing. Snacking. Maybe muttering to oneself. We all have our quirky musing habits, and they are not always comfortably performed in an open office setting, where we might be all too aware that people are watching us.
In her April 2018 piece for Metropolis magazine, “Why Technology Can Be the Enemy of the Creative Workplace,” Studio O+A Principal Verda Alexander argues that “The most creatively prolific people actually choose workplaces with an element of friction. Artists, writers, and poets go on residencies in out-of-the-way, austere places to make breakthroughs and get great amounts of new work done.” The point, she says, is to get away from environments streamlined for 24/7 work.
In their white paper, “Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design,” Haworth, the workspace design and manufacturing company, supports this conclusion, emphatically stating that creative thinking can’t be streamlined:
By meandering the byways of the imagination network, cognition gets more spontaneous, stumbling upon the desired connection responsible for the “ah-ha!” moment. It often happens when we least expect it. Without time and space to engage imagination, we’ll miss out on insights.
And the now famous Harvard Business School study about open office design concludes that open offices aren’t exactly favored by the muse: “People are better at rote tasks, rather than creative ones, when we feel we’re on display, and part of our mind is therefore preoccupied by social pressures.”
Incubating Inspiration in the Workplace
So how do we create space for the muse in an office? What kinds of environments are good for incubating inspiration? And can technology be an element of this, or should it be kept out of the picture altogether?
In July of 2017, Microsoft conducted a study of 1,100 workers, 73% of whom considered themselves to be creative. Workers felt most able to be creative when they were alone (42%), while taking a walk (26%) or outdoors (21%). This supports the idea that the work environment must now include spaces “outside the boundaries of the physical office,” as Arnold Levin and George Athens of SmithGroup note in “Beyond The Corporate Office: The New Landscape Of Work And Workplace” in WorkDesign magazine. Because technology is untethered, we can work anywhere.
In its 2017 Experience Index, Gensler found that people often find inspiration in the “interstitial” or in-between times between tasks — and that “supporting discovery time proves to be a boon to both productivity and business performance.”
But we can’t always wander around or loiter in search of inspiration. Are there ways to bring the benefits of meandering through nature into the office scape, or to trigger discovery time? We found a few interesting approaches.
Plantronics Habitat Soundscaping
Plantronics, the manufacturer of audio and video collaboration solutions, recently introduced Habitat Soundscaping, a soundmasking system that uses nature sounds instead of white noise and can be combined with physical design elements that evoke nature such as water features and digital skylights or windows. If, as Plantronics says, “Exposure to nature enhances creative problem-solving skills and improves cognitive performance,” bringing the sights and sounds of nature into the workplace might stoke inspiration.
Virtual Reality for Biophilia
Virtual reality is, almost by definition, an “interstitial space.” Can it provide the escape and privacy, and even the interaction with natural elements, that could foster inspiration? Some researchers think so. In the March issue of Building and Environment, researchers at the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment describe using virtual reality to trigger physiological and cognitive changes that paralleled exposure to nature. In the future, might inspiration be a headset away?
And there’s always the option of the “stupid space” (as opposed to the smart space) — areas without technology, without screens, without all the distractions that hook us. As Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” suggests, technology commands our attention. At some point, technology may be integrated into our environment so subtly that it doesn’t distract us, but for now, screens are nearly irresistible. That’s because, as Alter says, they don’t have “stopping cues,” or indications that let us know that the content has ended. Instead, communication feeds are endless: email, social media, news feeds never end.
In his TED Talk, Alter describes the office of a Dutch design firm that has rigged their desks to the ceiling. At 6PM, no matter what, the desks rise to the ceiling, computers and all. Sometimes the space morphs into a yoga studio; sometimes a dance club. The cue is clear: work is done.
Workplaces in the future may be able to prompt us to step away from the screen, connect to nature, or find the inefficient stretch that leads to inspiration. For now, we must find ways to induce the muse ourselves. As for me, I’m off for a walk.