The most creative companies are often those whose employees frequently interact.
How work spaces are organized within a company can influence employee creativity. Tom Allen, a researcher at Harvard University, showed in a study that employees who communicated the most with their colleagues were those who produced the largest number of innovative ideas. They consulted between four and nine people per project, compared to one or two for less imaginative employees.
However, the researcher also indicated that a person is 10 times more likely to interact with a colleague sitting next to him/her than with a colleague sitting 50 meters away. He concluded that the best place for conversations was the coffee machine.
Encouraging physical proximity
Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, conducted a similar study. He examined the effects of the physical proximity of two scientists on the quality of their research, measured by the number of citations of their work. It transpired that the best articles were produced when the two authors were sitting around two meters apart. This allowed them to have frequent conversations and to improve the quality of their work.
This type of horizontal interaction can be encouraged by mixing up teams and removing physical barriers which prevent discussions from starting spontaneously. So the spatial arrangement of employees should not necessarily follow a departmental or hierarchical logic: mix engineers with designers, sit creatives next to marketing staff or put bosses in the middle of their subordinates.
Avoiding getting rid of all workplace boundaries
Be careful however that you do not give into the temptation to get rid of all workplace boundaries. The advertising agency TBWA Chiat Day explored this avenue in the 1990s, removing individual workplaces and replacing them with an open-plan arrangement, where everyone could choose where to sit each morning. The idea was that employees would group together according to the projects they were working on together. In reality, this organization of space actually discouraged interaction since employees could never locate the person they were looking for.
Thinking about a “third place”
It is much more efficient to try to encourage interaction in spaces specifically set aside for that purpose. These spaces, which the sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “the third place” – because this is not home (the first place) or your work place (the second space) – are like improved versions of the coffee machine space.
Free from any emotive or work connotation, these places allow employees to chat and exchange ideas in a relaxing environment, while having a coffee or something else to eat or drink. This might be a relaxation space designed for this purpose, the company cafeteria, a bar, or even... the bathroom. Wherever it may be, the important thing is that the company encourages its employees to go there.
Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.