Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Space matters

Our workspace effects our thoughts, attitudes and behavior.  They also effect how we take in and process information.  They may even play a role in how globally competitive we are.

A couple of summer’s ago my family sat in the choir stalls at Westminster Abbey - the 500-year-old English church in London - and listened to choir voices echo and then fade into the Abbey’s ancient spaces. My normally fidgety son was glued to his seat, in complete awe. The previous summer we stood at the base of Yosemite Falls and felt the spray on our faces. Looking skyward through the on coming drops we collectively we took a deep breath. 

There was something magical about both those experiences. They put us into what I might call the zone, or a state of flow.  In business, being “in the flow” encourages creativity, open communication, effective problem solving, creativity and innovation; qualities some say are needed for the U.S. to compete globally.

Corporate environments also have a dramatic effect on the way we think and behave. John Medina in “Brain Rules,” says our typical office environment discourages higher brain functions. Sitting for hours in confined spaces under unnatural light dulls our mental processes and reduces our tolerance levels, creativity and ability to communicate effectively.  One study suggested employees’ IQ levels decrease after attending a poorly run meeting in cramped, windowless rooms, painted white or grey.

These spaces promote stagnation, not flow.

Instead of "process work", which is increasingly sent offshore, there’s a growing emphasis on "knowledge work”, which depends more on learning, collaboration, initiative and exploration. So, if we value creativity, trust, innovation and open communication, we need to create office spaces that activate higher brain functions that promote these desirable behaviors.   Medina and others offer these suggestions: 

Color: Paint walls the right shade of color to stimulate these behaviors; yellow (confidence and energy), green (relaxation and openness), blue (harmony and creativity). Lighting: Use full spectrum and natural lighting. Break Down Walls: Open up workspaces to allow for movement and discussion.  Truly effective workspaces encourage chance encounters. They invite people to move around, start unexpected conversations and collaborate spontaneously. Open workspaces encourage the sorts of fortunate accidents that lead to new perspectives on vexing problems. Break Spaces: Provide areas that give employees the freedom to work how, when and where they want. Place a few comfortable chairs in unusual spots— in corners of large rooms, hallways, in front of large windows. Knowing that creativity arrives at all hours, these spaces and amenities should be accessible around the clock.  Idea Walls: Have large write-on/wipe-off walls where people can draw, envision new solutions, and communicate in pictures- doing this taps the right (creative) side of our brains. Walking Meetings:  Our brains work far better when we are active than if we are stationary.  Hold more walking meetings.

Workspaces may never feel like Yosemite or an ancient church. But they can and should encourage the behaviors of creativity, collaboration and innovation that are necessary for succeeding in today’s global market.

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