How the modern office is killing our creativity
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On a wintry afternoon in February, a veteran British adman named Roger Mavity walked into a drab meeting room at the Financial Times to tell a bunch of journalists how to do their jobs better.
He and Stephen Bayley, the design guru, were about to publish How to Steal Fire, yet another book on one of the most eagerly sought qualities in the business world: creativity.
Companies buffeted by a storm of digital disruption and competitive pressures have embraced the need for creative thinking with gusto in recent years, which marks a turnround.
Chief executives have talked for decades about the importance of innovation, which academics define as the implementation of new ideas. But far less attention has been devoted to figuring out how to foster creativity itself.
That began to change after the dotcom crash of 2000 and the subsequent financial crisis. By 2010, a global survey of more than 1,500 CEOs found creativity was deemed the single most important leadership trait for success. Later research has shown that CEOs think the struggle to hire creative workers is one of the biggest threats to their business.
As a result, books like Mr Mavity’s arrive at the FT with great frequency. Like so many others, it promises to show readers how to “think boldly” and “spark imaginative thought”. Since newspapers have been disrupted as much as any business, we wondered what would happen if we invited him in to tell a group of journalists how we — and FT readers — might work more creatively. He cheerfully agreed, yet as soon as he began setting out his ideas, an obvious problem emerged: almost everything he was suggesting is almost impossible in the modern office, starting with its design.
“The first thing that helps creativity is solitude,” Mr Mavity said. “Creativity is essentially an individual rather than a collective activity.”
Sir Isaac Newton was a case in point, he told us. The great thoughts that helped him go on to formulate the theory of gravity came after the Great Plague closed his university (Cambridge) and he spent nearly two years shut away in his home in Lincolnshire.
Mr Mavity could also have mentioned Bill Gates. When he was running Microsoft, Mr Gates used to head off by himself to a secluded hideaway twice a year for what he called Think Week, seven days of pondering the future of technology that inspired some important moves, including the development of Microsoft’s internet browser.
In other words, as Mr Mavity said: “If you need to produce an idea, isolating yourself can be enormously beneficial.”
Perhaps sensing the mood of the room, however, he added: “How you do that in a big open plan office with 100 other people trying to be creative at the same time is an interesting question.”
It certainly is. Solitude is in hopelessly short supply at a time when companies are captivated by the financial allure of the open-plan office and its evil twin, hot-desking. Journalists have long worked cheek by deadline-driven jowl but the rest of the world has caught up fast.
Most people are doomed to either a completely open-plan office (23 per cent) or a mixture of open and private (46 per cent), according to a 2016 study by Steelcase, a US office furniture maker. The problem is especially acute in Britain, where high property costs, especially in London, mean 49 per cent of workers are stuck in noisy, distracting open-plan offices that make solitary work virtually impossible.
Worse, their bosses may be quite unaware of the problem. Nearly two-thirds of executives believe their staff have the tools they need to deal with distractions at work, but fewer than half of employees agree, according to a 2015 Oxford Economics study of companies headquartered around the world. Unsurprisingly, 62 per cent of executives had a private office compared with just 14 per cent of employees.
But Mr Mavity had more bad news that even those lucky enough to have an office with a door cannot escape: the obsession with the concept of teamwork. The idea that great creative thoughts come from teamwork, brainstorming and the ever-present away day is one of the “great myths” of creativity, he said.
Group dynamics mean people trying to figure out a problem together tend to either show off to impress, or politely back each other’s thoughts no matter how rubbish they are. Either way, because responsibility is shared, the pressure to come up with solutions is reduced.
This phenomenon is so well known it has a title, the Ringelmann effect, named after a French engineer, Max Ringelmann, who first observed that individual productivity falls as group size increases. Away days can be useful for helping people get to know each other better, but not for generating ideas, said Mr Mavity. As his book puts it: “Brainstorming produces, at best, a light, irritating drizzle of complacent mediocrity.”
Here again, he met blank looks around the table. Brainstorming and teamwork are mainstays of modern business life, not to mention endless meetings and other bureaucratic distractions that conspire to interrupt focused thought, creative or otherwise. These practices persist despite their obvious drawbacks.
Indeed, if you have ever endured a day full of pointless meetings where nothing was decided because there were too many participants and people haggled over nothing or spoke too long about irrelevant matters, you have just seen something called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual in action.
This 1944 document was published by the US Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, to show ordinary people inside enemy territory during the second world war how to help the Allies by disrupting sundry activities, including day-to-day business operations.
As the US consultant, Aaron Dignan, writes in his latest book, Brave New Work, “Somehow, in less than a lifetime, modern work has become indistinguishable from sabotage.”
This all raises an unsettling question: could it be that the same chief executives who want to generate creativity are killing it by jamming their staff into noisy, open-plan offices full of irksome distractions? It could, says Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who has been studying creativity since the 1970s. “There is a disconnect,” she says, explaining that smart companies understand the need for focused concentration. “There are people who seem to be able to do really top creative work in coffee shops,” she adds. “But most people can’t do that.” They need to be free of distractions in the physical environment.
Being around other people can be helpful when you are trying to gather background information or understand the dimensions of a problem, she says, but not when it comes to doing really complex, innovative work.
Prof Amabile and colleagues once collected more than 9,000 work diaries from employees that underlined how people think creatively when they are able to concentrate on a single task for a large slice of the day. As one diarist put it, “The event of the day was that I had no standout events. I was able to concentrate on the project at hand without interruptions.”
So what should executives be doing to foster creativity?
“They have to walk the talk,” says Prof Amabile, explaining leaders need to set clear goals and then give people doing creative work the time, resources and autonomy to achieve them.
Managers must be genuinely open to new thoughts and make sure good ideas are fostered. “None of it is rocket science or brain surgery,” she says. “But you really do have to pay attention on a regular basis to whether people have these things.”