Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace

For cash-rich companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, there is a race to hire architects like Norman Foster and Frank Gehry to design their headquarters. Google headquarters consists of nine angled buildings connected by bridges. Reportedly, the idea was based on data collected from Google employees’ behavior which then translated into some kind of architectural algorithm that should produce “casual collisions” to make innovation happen more often. I am not buying this, but they are. When 3D virtual conferencing technology comes to market, these companies will be the early adopters. Expect cool walk-in facilities outfitted with wall-sized screens that project 360-degree views of videoconference participants from different offices or countries.

The last time we attempted to reinvent the workplace was during the dot com days when many companies switched from cubicles to open offices in order to improve collaboration and encourage impromptu problem solving. Today, millennials demand more personal workspace flexibility – the ability to adapt a workstation or stand at their desks. Standing work is happening everywhere as much as working on a couch. In addition to personal storage and personal expression, companies need to accommodate this preference.

I can’t wait for the day when we start banning standard cubicles and those headache-inducing white fluorescent lights. I wish those standard cubicles would join the ranks of the fax machine and the time-punch clock. It just might happen, thanks to Google, Apple and Pixar and others who have started to embrace the idea of cool workspaces designed to stimulate creativity and inspire innovation. I don’t mean those that put up colorful wallpaper and a few beanbags; that’s no better than a cubicle. Workspaces can be stressful environments and it is important to think about how we can design to reduce stress, not just create colorful eye-candy.

Most workspace stress can come from any physical conditions that you perceive as irritating, frustrating, uncomfortable or unpleasant. Common sources of workspace stress include poor lighting, noisy backgrounds, lack of fresh air and poor climate conditions. But the biggest potential stress is other people. Difficult people can cause so much stress, particularly with the demand for team collaboration. Can a cool office space solve this problem? Perhaps to a certain degree. Physical workspaces have a profound impact on increasing not just productivity but also team creativity and collaboration. That’s part of the reason why Google and Facebook designed their offices with people sitting side-by-side and no partitions between them. An open environment radiates a sense of community where creative spaces calm people down and remind them there is a creative solution to any problem. Cubicles remind you that the office is  a machine and you must follow processes and procedures.

Many companies believe that innovation is increased only after taking proactive steps to increase discovery (learning and exposure), collaboration (working with people from different disciplines) and fun (yes, fun in the workplace). San Francisco based Studio O+A has been doing some great workspace design for companies including eBay, Microsoft, Facebook, PayPal, and Yelp. With a staff of only 19, they company has consistency broken the mold of what an office should be like.

Founded by Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander in the early 1990s, the company’s original mission was to bring sophisticated urban design to Silicon Valley start-ups and the venture firms who supported them. That start-up mentality is still very much part of O+A style, but the firm is now designing for big tech companies too. It works because many need to be reminded that they should always act like a start-up. The firm believes work environments grow organically from the culture of the client and their work begins with identifying and understanding that culture and then translating it into spatial terms.

According to Orpilla, “We like to observe the way the people use the space and what the true philosophy and sensibilities of the founders are. This informs our design, we want them to know the space is a place to foster community, not just provide a place to work. The most successful designed spaces truly represent the culture of a company and its values.”

Featured here are some inspirational office spaces designed by Studio O+A. These are all inspiration spaces that not only promote a healthy and creative working environment; they are reflections of the company’s culture and work style. What they have in common is that they all scream out a new workspace manifesto: I demand that work must be fun, joyful, and blended as part of the fabric of life, a shared purpose and a supporting community. Simpler, better work means work styles that are richly our own, and that give each of us freedom to choose how we work and the tools we use. We are all individuals. We don’t want to be part of a machine.

If your company isn’t thinking about how workspace design can improve collaboration, chances are you are stuck in the 80s. These days everyone wants to collaborate with each other; the average employee actively participates in at least five different ad hoc teams simultaneously, and we can expect that number to rise. Creative workplace design that supports collaboration will be part of the new productivity index. It can be a fun, professional and social experience where employees build community ties. If your company does not facilitate that, there is always another one who offers something cool just around the corner.

Studio O+A, photo by Jasper Salidad
A Studio O+A designed workspace , photo by Jasper Salidad

This article appears in MISC fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue 

the author

Idris Mootee

Idris Mootee is the publisher and editor-in-chief of MISC and CEO of Idea Couture. See his full bio here.