Three tips for creating an office that inspires innovation

Better, faster, stronger: Here’s why the most successful companies avoid status quo office space when focusing on innovation

Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.

There’s an immense amount of pressure on businesses to innovate ahead of the competition. It’s that ability to stay two (or 10) steps ahead of the pack that allows for the biggest gains.

The path to innovation seems straightforward: It starts with hiring the best talent, who will think up new and novel solutions; putting them into action; learning and iterating. But in today’s world, it doesn’t end there.

Hiring top talent and then asking them to do their best work in a suboptimal office environment is a recipe for disaster. Have you experienced (or may be experiencing now) surroundings that remind you more of the movie Office Space than an innovation superhub?

The world’s most innovative companies optimize every aspect of their business—including their physical workspace.

The ability to think creatively, to imagine possibilities, to connect those dots that will drive business into the future can feel impossible when you spend your entire day in a windowless office with no natural light. Or when you feel chained to a desk. A depressing physical workspace may hinder even the most talented hire from thinking of their next big idea.

So, how should employers set the stage for innovation within their own workspaces? As part of the workplace strategy team here at WeWork, we’ve spent a lot of time optimizing the workplace experience so that employees can do their best work. Here are three ways you can rethink your workspace to encourage innovation among your own teams.

1. Make your workspace “hackable”

When teams are tasked with innovation, there’s an expectation that employees will quickly be ideating, prototyping, and testing things out—so shouldn’t their workspace be agile as well? In other words, shouldn’t employees feel empowered to physically “hack” a conventional office setup?

What exactly does this mean? From desks to chairs, couches to tables, employees should have the ability to mold their workspace into what they need, rather than what the employer may have originally envisioned. For example, WeWork has made sure some of our furniture can be moved by adding handles and other visual cues. Employees can configure the space for their needs, whether it’s a large group brainstorm or a comfortable place to work alone. In essence, we think of workspace as “software,” or possessing the ability to be updated on-demand, rather than “hardware,” which is static and unchanging. Employees should be encouraged to create an environment in which they feel comfortable and inspired—much like the feeling of a residential home.

A great example of this came from my recent visit to IDEO, an international design and consulting firm founded in Palo Alto, California. Their philosophy is that “hackable” workspace enables employees to make their actual work more scrappy and experimental. When imagining what it feels like to have a wall in certain space, for instance, IDEO employees put up cardboard walls and tested different arrangements to see how behaviors change within the space.

The result of all this space-hacking? A workspace environment in which people were enthusiastic about sharing ideas and solving problems. Moreover, employees in hackable spaces feel free to express their ideas and opinions without punishment; in other words, the employees feel psychologically safe to express themselves

How important is psychological safety? In researching the dynamics of high-performing teams, Google’s people operations department identified psychological safety as the first of five essential ingredients. Losing that fear of repercussion for trying something new makes employees feel empowered to take risks, have candid discussions, and brainstorm creative solutions. To them, failure is a learning experience, and confronting issues leads to positive outcomes. All of this can be fostered and encouraged by the right workspace. 

Drinking coffee is a popular ritual at WeWork in Bogotá, Colombia.

2. Build a unique culture with rituals

All companies have rituals—from the mundane everyday routines (coffee breaks, tea time) to major, less frequent events like annual meetings and retirement parties. They’re simple actions that connect us to ourselves, our place, and the moment. But did you know that workspace rituals can also have an effect on your employees when it comes to innovation?

Employees who are encouraged and empowered to initiate specific activities within their work environment tend to strengthen their sense of belonging within their team. In essence, rituals create a shared identity between people. Successful sports coaches, for example, typically use rituals to build social bonds between team members.

It’s important to note the difference between a standard ritual and those rituals designed to encourage innovation. At WeWork, for example, we not only serve fresh coffee daily; we do so in a kitchen designed as a “center of gravity”—a place designed for people to naturally want to gather, chat, and share ideas. We don’t just have a reception area; we have a whole community team whose job it is to make sure employees feel taken care of. And on Mondays, our team dinners are about more than food—they’re about coming together after the weekend to connect and discuss the week ahead. All of these rituals contribute to employees feeling like they’re part of a community, which contributes to the psychological safety needed to innovate.

In essence, workspace design can help create those rituals, but it’s that layer of connection that really reinforces everyday activities with positive memories. Day after day, these rituals stimulate emotions and reduce anxiety, while increasing a sense of belonging and creating the right environment for innovation. 

3. Add an element of play

Incorporating playfulness into everything we do is essential in developing the flexibility our brains need to access innovation and creativity (which decreases dramatically as we become older). According to Stuart Brown, M.D. and Christopher Vaughan, authors of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, play at its essence is the act of doing things “just because.” 

Play is:

  • Apparently purposeless
  • Voluntary
  • Inherent attraction
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation of desire

In the brain, play directly stimulates the neurotrophic factor (nerve growth), amygdala (emotion processing), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (executive decisions). Studies have shown, for example, that rats further develop their brains via a variety of stimuli while playing with toys and socializing with other rats.

Specifically, indicators for innovation can be found within emotionally charged early play memories, which become stronger in children as their brains develop. But in fact, when it comes to innovation, play shouldn’t stop at childhood. If you incorporate more opportunities for playfulness into your workspace, you’ll enable your employees to exercise their creative-thinking muscles on the way to their next innovative idea. 

For example, try inviting your employees to brainstorm without a time limit (i.e., make sure no one feels guilty when hitting pause on their projects) for an afternoon to invite more playtime into their schedule. By encouraging this time, you’re setting expectations with your employees that it’s their job to be creative and drive innovation and your job as an employer to create an environment in which innovation happens.

Setting the stage for innovation

The world’s most innovative companies optimize every aspect of their business—including their physical workspace. It’s no longer enough just to hire the best of the best—to innovate at a competitive speed that talent needs a space in which to do their best work. This allows you to set the stage for innovative ideas that will drive your business forward.

WeWork offers companies of all sizes space solutions that help solve their biggest business challenges.

Stephanie Park is a senior lead strategist at WeWork. Stephanie earned her dual degree in architecture and psychology from Carnegie Mellon, where she focused on how design decisions can be informed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. She earned her master’s degree in data science at Columbia University to further pursue her passion in using data to develop strategies anchored in deep understanding of human behaviors and drivers.

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