The open office paradox

I have followed the open office trend for many years, although I must admit that I felt it was a fad void of any real substantive value. I know of several local firms who have experimented with a variety of open office layouts; I would assume in an attempt to manufacture some form of collaboration. The open office concept - where cube farms are replaced by wide swaths of open space - was supposed to boost staff creativity and productivity. However, the promise of greater collaboration (and as a result, greater creativity) never really came through in most implementations. In fact, in a recent study issued by Harvard University, researchers Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban found that contrary to the popular belief, removing the spatial boundaries created by cubicles actually decreased collaboration and collective intelligence in most instances. In light of this new research, a growing number of firms are re-thinking the open-office concept, and some eary adopters are ditching it altogether. However, in my opinion the research is likely focused disproportionately on the benign design aspects of collective work spaces rather than on the underlying factors that actually foster creativity. It has been my experience that what motivates creative thinkers is very different from what motivates the average worker. If you are trying to cultivate a creative workforce, you’ll need a lot more than a slick collaboration space and an unlimited supply of free Red Bull.

Psychologist Teresa Amabile conducted a research study in which she invited several experts to assess the work of 29 professional artists (and you can’t get more creative than that). Unknown to the experts was the fact that each artist had been asked to submit 10 commissioned pieces and 10 non-commissioned pieces. Overwhelmingly, the experts rated the non-commissioned works as being more creative than the commissioned ones. But why?

The results of Amabile’s research demonstrate a link between what is known as intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing something for its own sake) and creativity. The higher the intrinsic motivation, the more creative the resulting work will be. On the other hand, when we focus on extrinsic motivation — systems that reward employees for doing well and/or create disincentives for not meeting goals (punishment for poor performance)— the results are measurably less creative. So, essentially, after a certain point in the hierarchy of ones needs – higher salary and more generous bonuses (extrinsic motivation) will only go so far to motivate employees; and it will do nothing whatsoever to inspire creativity. The bottom line is that people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by anything else.

Intrinsic motivation = high creativity. Extrinsic motivation = low creativity.

Both Microsoft and Apple were founded in residential garages, which isn’t exactly an open concept collaborative space. The point is that intrinsic motivation fueled the creative fire in both of those companies, not the space that their early work was performed in. Want to foster a creative workforce? Focus more on developing intrinsic motivation and less on the workspace. After many years managing a creative (albeit technical) workforce, my number one intrinsic motivator remains autonomy. Creative thinkers flourish when they are unencumbered by bureaucracy and unnecessary process. Removing the arbitrary barriers empowers your workforce to innovate. Somewhere along the way, removing arbitrary barriers to success got translated into removing the cube walls. Again, I have no issues with open office concepts; I actually prefer them from an aesthetics perspective. It is just my contention that an office floorplan will never make a measurable difference in the collective creativity of the workforce, but intrinsic motivation will.

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