The search for innovative workspaces is just a waste of time. Here’s why.

August 6

Fancy desks? Open floor plans? Not helping. (Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan )

Picture yourself being invited to visit the hottest start-up that mere mortals only dream of touring. Arriving at its corporate headquarters you open the main door to see a vintage looking freight elevator, older than dirt itself, yet at the same time oddly well kept. You pull open the doors, with surprising ease and hop inside, smoothly riding up to the fifth floor. When the elevator stops, the doors open to reveal one of the coolest spaces you’ve ever seen. Could this innovative space be the reason they achieve their unsurpassed level of creativity? The answer isn’t that simple.

Great spaces are often praised for their ability to generate creative ideas. Research has found carefully considered interiors aid in collaboration and innovation. And what of those cubicles we love to hate? Nearly 81 percent of offices in one study, are ditching the cube in favor of the open floor plan that research has shown helps us feel more like a team.

Despite the research, the great space migration isn’t exactly producing the results expected with many employees expressing their dissent of the open workspace concept. Negative feedback is well-documented. Workers in offices receive fewer interruptions. An open-plan layout is a guarantee of more disruption due to noise and less privacy. As if it’s not enough to constantly check to see if someone’s looking over your shoulder, other lament their increased difficulty focusing. Any change is met with resistance, so maybe these are growing pains. But maybe not.

Research from Kristine Woolsey seems to point to an underlying reason for this transitional discomfort. Woolsey, a former Arizona State architecture professor and presently, the national director of CarrierJohnson +Culture, suggests an alternative work set-up instead of  a completely open work space. Her findings suggest office spaces should be designed more like a jail, fitting people into cells. Her theory is said to prevent hazardous dynamics in the group relationship. Groups or pods of six are preferable for an innovative work environment instead of a giant open work area. Why six? Too few people, and a power struggle emerges, too many and voices aren’t heard. It all seems to make perfect sense, but even Woolsey’s concept isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Enter self-proclaimed introvert, Susan Cain who strongly dislikes working in groups at all. In her TED talk, she discusses the open work space concept being designed with the intentions of converting introverts to extroverts. Cain openly criticizes the pod concept that has seen popularity even in our schools as of late and appears to stand in stark contrast to the model that Woolsey’s research shows works so well.

Confused yet? With many intelligent people pointing to vastly different conclusions on what space design sparks innovation, productivity and creativity, it’s painfully obvious we are missing something. Apparently, the American workforce simply has no idea what is actually wants —surprisingly, it never has.


Where employees work is less important than who they are.  (Jeffrey MacMillan for The Washington Post)

For quite some time, the workspace debate has raged on, outlined by Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed. Clerks working in the 1860s worked next to each other in rows of desks, separated by nothing but their individual tasks at hand. By the 1920s the environment had completely changed. Executives ended up breaking away from the unwashed masses into their own private offices. Workers were situated in large open areas with their desks neatly organized in rows. The bosses would wade back and forth through this ocean of busy bodies ensuring everyone stayed productive. But this didn’t sit well with everyone.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, working for Larkin in 1904, sensed an opportunity for a better workspace. He created a very different concept to free the American worker complete with open spaces, lots of natural light, and grouped desks. He even designed restrooms with leather chairs, player pianos and a place to decompress. Though the work environment was better, it did little to offer better work.

European brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle observed an opportunity to change the workspace as well. Breaking away from their father’s architecture business, they ended up developing Bürolandshaft or “office landscape.” Its organic form appeared chaotic and unorganized, but caught on in parts of Europe. It did make it across the Atlantic, but its focus on collaboration and interaction tossed out other important work aspects such as introspection and concentration.

Finally in the 1960s two men led a similar office assault. Armed with smart aesthetic ammunition and cutting edge research, Robert Propst and George Nelson working for Herman Miller, developed an office work environment product called Action Office. The concept was designed to make employees more free and productive and featured open spaces, great design, high quality materials and a work environment that was said to keep employees moving and engaged. Despite receiving awards and recognition however, Action Office didn’t catch on. The materials used were too expensive, and overall, bosses simply didn’t like the change. Propst separated from Nelson and after tweaking and re-designing the concept it was later relaunched as Action Office 2.The New York Post referred to this new concept as “Revolution Hits the Office.” Herman Miller actively promoted the concept, and even launched a lecture series on their system being the future of creative office work. Soon the knock-offs hit the market, and Herman Miller rolled out the more square like designs built to save space. To Propst’s dismay, the cubicle of today was born.  

Even Zappos still has the very cubicles many companies believe hinders their creativity and productivity. Yes, they are allowed to dress up their spaces to extreme degrees, but what does this mean for the rest of us? Are we supposed to keep the cubes but dress them up like Zappos, or ditch them completely like these fancy tech start-ups? Are the 81 percent of American businesses making the jump to open office concepts too early or is it the right decision?

In this great space debate, what most companies are falling into is a causation-correlation fallacy. They see innovative Silicon Valley companies offering ultra-hip spaces and assume space is one of the reasons the company is so creative. What they miss is that many of these companies most creative periods was in a  dull and boring space – a garage.

A BMW commercial, and a recent Cadillac commercial (that completely ripped it off) point out the same conclusion: Incredible things happen in garages. The commercials mention Amazon, Apple, Google, Motown, HP, Disney and Mattel were companies that started in garages. Why is arguably the most creative point in these companies histories in the worst work space imaginable? If these American success stories are any indication, using the same correlation-causation fallacy that got us here in the first place, could I suggest making creative teams is as simple as providing cobweb-filled garages as workspaces?

Although not a garage, Clif Bar is another interesting example. Working out of a cold damp warehouse in its early days, the company had no problem inspiring creative collaboration and encouraging productivity. People loved working there, despite six people sharing four computers, and having forklifts buzz by their desks, some of which were made of shipping palettes.

As the company grew they were able to improve workers workspace but the results weren’t as expected. Employees actually started to hate working at the company. They almost seemed to long for the days in the warehouse, nearly getting run over by forklifts. “When I started I was the 15th employee. I wonder how we can survive to be that once cool little company we were a few years ago,” said an early Clif employee in Gary Erickson’s Raising the Bar. They felt like they were a part of something.

Does a specific space design make you more creative and innovative at all? Do we just need to find the perfect blend of seclusion, openness or customization? Can we solve the noise and focus problems that have been a problem since the Bürolandshaft concept? Do we need to make thousands of garages or warehouses for employees? Obviously, there isn’t any specific solution. No matter what you do to the space your employees work in, that won’t make them creative. The men or women managing the people in the space are clearly more important than the space itself. If the space becomes the focus over employees, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Brady is a writer and speaker focused on cultivating creativity. He founded the Iowa Creativity Summit and lives in Des Moines, where he owns Test of Time Design. He contributed to The Laws of Subtraction. Find him on Twitter, @JustinBrady.

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