Does The Physical Workspace Have An Impact On Creativity?

I was asked by a writer for my thoughts about physical workspaces (e.g., open office layout, green landscapes, expansive views, etc.) and whether or not they impact creativity.

Here’s my response (additional comments have been added):

Creativity can be defined as coming up with new and useful ideas (Amabile, 1998). Professor Teresa Amabile (2012) developed a 4-component model of creativity. In the model, creativity is based on domain-relevant skills (expertise), creative-thinking skills, intrinsic motivation, and the social environment in which a person works.

In a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, Amabile wrote:

“Another resource that is misunderstood when it comes to creativity is physical space. It is almost conventional wisdom that creative teams need open, comfortable offices. Such an atmosphere won’t hurt creativity, and it may even help, but it is not nearly as important as other managerial initiatives that influence creativity. Indeed, a problem we have seen time and time again is managers paying attention to creating the “right” physical space at the expense of more high-impact actions, such as matching people to the right assignments and granting freedom around work processes.” -Professor Teresa M. Amabile (1998)

She would further refine her position in her Componential Theory of Creativity (2012).

“Research in organizational settings has revealed a number of work environment factors that can block creativity, such as norms of harshly criticizing new ideas; political problems within the organization; an emphasis on the status quo; a conservative, low-risk attitude among top management; and excessive time pressure. Other factors can stimulate creativity, such as a sense of positive challenge in the work; work teams that are collaborative, diversely skilled, and idea-focused; freedom in carrying out the work; supervisors who encourage the development of new ideas; top management that supports innovation through a clearly articulated creativity-encouraging vision and through appropriate recognition for creative work; mechanisms for developing new ideas; and norms of actively sharing ideas across the organization.” -Professor Teresa M. Amabile (2012)

“Creativity requires a confluence of all components; creativity should be highest when an intrinsically motivated person with high domain expertise and high skill in creative thinking works in an environment high in supports for creativity.” -Professor Teresa M. Amabile (2012)

Regarding creativity and the physical work environment or workspace, I think this quote from Professor Amabile’s interview is especially noteworthy:

“When I’ve done broad open ended studies of people trying to be creative in organizations, I [Teresa Amabile] ask them to describe a highly creative event from their recent work experience where they or their team did something highly creative and then contrast that with an uncreative event or project where they needed creative ideas and it just didn’t just come together. People talk about a lot of things when they describe these instances, and rarely do they mention the physical environment they are working in.” -Professor Teresa M. Amabile

Takeaway: Workspaces do not need to be beautifully designed or have unconventional layouts in order to spark creativity. In Professor Amabile’s writings about creativity and the social environment component of her creativity model she emphasized the importance of managerial practices and the impact on creativity and the leader’s role in creating the right processes and workplace climates to enhance creativity. Professor Amabile cautions against focusing too much on creating the “right” physical space “at the expense of more high-impact actions, such as matching people to the right assignments and granting freedom around work processes” (Amabile, 1998).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership Advisor & Talent Development Consultant

References

Amabile, T. M. (1998). How to Kill Creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(5), 76-87. https://hbr.org/1998/09/how-to-kill-creativity

Amabile, T. M. (2012). Componential Theory of Creativity. Working Paper 12-096. Retrieved from http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/12-096.pdf

Stringer, L. (2016, April 13). Unlocking Creativity at Work: An Interview with Teresa Amabile, Professor and Director of Research at Harvard Business School. http://www.leighstringer.com/interview-teresa-amabile-creativity-guru-director-research-harvard-business-school/