James Swift

2 March 2023

Strategist’s Digest: When cool offices curb creativity 

Contagious digests the most interesting and relevant research from the world of advertising and beyond, because there’s just too much to read and too little time

Photo by Kelly Huang on Unsplash

Spaces for Creativity: Unconventional Workspaces and Divergent Thinking 

By Sunkee Lee and Manuel Sosa. (Working paper.)

​​​​​​​Give it to me in one sentence.

‘Cool’ offices can sometimes hinder creative problem solving.

Give me a little more detail.

The researchers designed a series of experiments to test whether unconventional work spaces improved divergent thinking.

In the first experiment they sent participants to complete a divergent thinking task – drawing objects that incorporated circles – in one of two offices. The offices had identical floor plans but contrasting décor. The conventional office looked like a standard corporate environment while the unconventional office was decked out with colourful beanbags, high-top desks and stools, and drawings and posters on the walls.

Contrary to their expectations, the researchers saw that participants in the ‘unconventional’ office performed worse at the task. They figured that it might be because the unconventional office included decorations that were related to the task, which caused the participants to narrow their focus to cues in their immediate vicinity, and they set out to test this revised hypothesis with two more experiments.

Unfortunately the pandemic (and also some administrative issues) intervened, and the researchers had to conduct their next experiments through video calls. On the plus side, it led them to discover that the effect of physical workspaces on divergent thinking could be replicated online (although to a lesser degree), by first giving participants a virtual tour of an office space, and then leaving up an image of it on screen while they worked.

The experiments confirmed the researchers revised hypothesis, namely that unconventional workspaces encourage divergent thinking, except when the features of the office could inspire solutions to the task. The researchers theorise that this is because people become cognitively fixated on the cues within their environment, limiting their ability to generate fresh ideas.

Why is this interesting?

This study introduces a boundary to the idea that unconventional workspaces promote creativity – the presence of visual cues that are related to the task at hand. It also suggests that you can recreate the benefits of a ‘cool office’ online, which is good to know in the era of WFH.

Any weaknesses?

The researchers tested participants with a simple creative task that bears little relation to the work that ad agencies do on a day-to-day basis.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, and it’s free.

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