Office Spaces Shape Experiences and How We Think

Black and White image of an unoccupied modern office space at night.
Jason Leung

The pandemic initiated the largest workplace experiment in modern history. Overnight, entire industries went fully remote, challenging decades of unchecked assumptions about how work is coordinated and managed. As people start trickling back into offices, the experiment is entering a new phase of exploration: the future of the office.

It is clear that if employees have a say, flexible work options are here to stay. This new reality is liberating offices from many previous functions, enabling us to reimagine how these spaces contribute to our business’s success. In doing so, we must go beyond asking what an office is or was to explore what it could be. Increasing innovation and doing it with less time in the office is probably the most critical — especially after an agonizing year of trying to coordinate collaborative efforts virtually. That conceptual shift will have to be met with a contextual change to bring these new ambitions to life.

There is no such thing as a “neutral” design

We know from decades of research and experience that seemingly small and insignificant contextual features can have massive effects on people’s behaviors and how organizations operate. The power of these small and often taken-for-granted details comes from their influence on focusing the attention of people in a particular direction or way. By encouraging certain behaviors and discouraging others, spaces directly affect how we think and act.

Issues arise when misalignments exist between desired behaviors and the way a space influences occupants. Many attempts to increase creativity in companies fail not for lack of will or ambition but because traditional office layouts are at odds with the contextual elements that encourage creativity. Once you strip away modern embellishments, most office configurations reflect the manufacturing lines that they were originally designed to replicate over 100 years ago. Open offices aren’t any better. By physically encouraging the sequential execution of discreet tasks, typical office layouts discourage collaborative exploration. Silos, after all, aren’t just erected through org charts and management practices; office layouts actively reinforced them. Hence why breaking them down is so challenging when physical changes do not accompany management changes.

To increase creativity and collaboration within offices, we must experiment with ways to align the contextual features of our spaces with the creative thinking we wish to promote. That will be even more important in the future when people spend less time together in offices. Here are three contextual features that help turn the spaces of highly innovative organizations into enabling forces in their creative success.

1. Foregrounding Past Work // Evoking New Concepts and Exploration

No matter how radically new, transformative concepts are combinations of what was there before. Creative companies generate thousands of these combinations throughout every project. Yet only a few ever explicitly appear in the final concept. That leaves the remaining experiments, insights, and musings available to be recombined into new combinations. However, to turn past-project materials into generative assets, they must be experientially accessible to encourage employees to engage with them.

To unleash the generative potential of decades of past work, the renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog Du Meuron built an in-house archival exhibition. Adidas, Dyson, and WeTransfer all put past-project work on display throughout their offices to encourage employees to engage with it — actively welcoming exploration into their daily rhythms. Needless to say, not everything can be put on display. Studios typically foreground the most evocative and inspirational materials to guide ideation and exploration towards their desired ambitions.

Archival exhibitions don’t need to be polished to be effective. The voids separating desks in reduced occupancy office layouts are perfect spaces to display past project materials. Walls are also great canvases. The rougher, the better because it encourages playful engagement rather than precious preservation.

2. War Rooms // Seeing the Previously Unimaginable Through Unbridled Exploration

Seeing highly familiar things in entirely new ways catalyzes innovation. In fact, most transformative ideas emerge from new perspectives rather than the discovery of new facts. Dislodging deeply entrenched and unconsciously enacted interpretive frameworks require a jolt to our mental lenses to make apparent what we have come to take for granted. To generate this awareness, innovative organizations use different mediums to see the thing under investigation from alternative vantage points. That means going beyond standards office software and whatever other tools competitors are using.

To engage with mediums that don’t live on screens, teams need space to spread out. During the initial ideation phase of a project, creative organizations provide dedicated project spaces that encourage teams to reshuffle, recombine, and transform the various mediums at their disposal. This interactive practice empowers teams to generate entirely new ways of seeing high familiar things.

Drawing inspiration from design studios like IDEO, Google introduced war rooms into their offices to encourage free-form experimentation. By providing dedicated spaces, teams are not constrained by the limited possibilities of their workstations and back-to-back booked conference rooms — presenting new investigative possibilities.

Flex partitions placed around a few tables in an unoccupied area of the office is a great first step to creating an immersive context that liberates teams from the confines of their desks and screens.

3. Hyper-Flexibility // Cohesively Navigation Through the Unknown

Genuinely novel concepts are emergent. They come to life over thousands of smaller moments of incremental insights rather than one or two bounded moments of creative genius. Rarely linear, projects are constantly changing direction at the start while teams are still defining the overall concept. To cohesively navigate through this ambiguity, creative companies reduce as many barriers to communication — both verbal and non-verbal — within teams as possible.

Working on separate yet interdependent parts, a slight change in one member’s work cascades out, impacting everyone else’s work. Collaboration like that demands a more dynamic way of staying connected with teammates to ensure that everyone remains aligned. To encourage free-flowing, spontaneous communication, creative organizations empower employees to rearrange themselves and their workspaces. That seems obvious, but most teams conform to the spaces they walk into (status quo bias in action!) rather than making it work for their unique and ever-evolving needs.

IBM’s design lab in Austin, Texas, takes hyper-flexibility to the next level by using moving walls and rolling furniture. These features enable teams to constantly adapt their space to their needs as they evolve over the life of a project. You don’t need to go to these extremes to telegraph to teams that they can and should adapt their space to their needs. Starting every project with a conversation about how the team can modify their space to meet their needs better will get us out of the default mindset of accepting our space as is. An hour or two of rearranging can go a long way.

As we rapidly approach the reopening of offices, we need to start experimenting with how we can reconfigure office spaces to empower our business’ success. That begins by determining how employees will use your office space and what behaviors and practices you want to promote and empower.

Bottom Line: The office spaces we left over a year ago no longer reflect our business’s evolving needs for generating new ideas while spending less time together. Liberated of many of its past functions, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine how our spaces actively contribute to our business’s success.

Atelier Kultur is an organizational and behavioral design studio. We create cultures and environments in which transformative ideas can happen.

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Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Andreas Hoffbauer, Ph.D.

Founder & Director of Atelier Kultur, Doctor of Organizational Innovation & Creativity