How the modern office is killing our creativity

New ideas often spring to mind in places of solitude, which are rare in the workplace
Veteran adman Roger Mavity says the idea that great creative thoughts come from teamwork, brainstorming and the ever-present away day is one of the ‘great myths’ of creativity © Charlie Bibby/FT
On a wintry afternoon in February, a veteran British adman named Roger Mavity walked into a drab meeting room at the Financial Times to tell a bunch of journalists how to do their jobs better.
He and Stephen Bayley, the design guru, were about to publish How to Steal Fire, yet another book on one of the most eagerly sought qualities in the business world: creativity.
Companies buffeted by a storm of digital disruption and competitive pressures have embraced the need for creative thinking with gusto in recent years, which marks a turnround.
Chief executives have talked for decades about the importance of innovation, which academics define as the implementation of new ideas. But far less attention has been devoted to figuring out how to foster creativity itself.
That began to change after the dotcom crash of 2000 and the subsequent financial crisis. By 2010, a global survey of more than 1,500 CEOs found creativity was deemed the single most important leadership trait for success. Later research has shown that CEOs think the struggle to hire creative workers is one of the biggest threats to their business.
As a result, books like Mr Mavity’s arrive at the FT with great frequency. Like so many others, it promises to show readers how to “think boldly” and “spark imaginative thought”. Since newspapers have been disrupted as much as any business, we wondered what would happen if we invited him in to tell a group of journalists how we — and FT readers — might work more creatively. He cheerfully agreed, yet as soon as he began setting out his ideas, an obvious problem emerged: almost everything he was suggesting is almost impossible in the modern office, starting with its design.
“The first thing that helps creativity is solitude,” Mr Mavity said. “Creativity is essentially an individual rather than a collective activity.”
Sir Isaac Newton was a case in point, he told us. The great thoughts that helped him go on to formulate the theory of gravity came after the Great Plague closed his university (Cambridge) and he spent nearly two years shut away in his home in Lincolnshire.
Mr Mavity could also have mentioned Bill Gates. When he was running Microsoft, Mr Gates used to head off by himself to a secluded hideaway twice a year for what he called Think Week, seven days of pondering the future of technology that inspired some important moves, including the development of Microsoft’s internet browser.
In other words, as Mr. Mavity said: “If you need to produce an idea, isolating yourself can be enormously beneficial.”
Perhaps sensing the mood of the room, however, he added: “How you do that in a big open plan office with 100 other people trying to be creative at the same time is an interesting question.”
It certainly is. Solitude is in hopelessly short supply at a time when companies are captivated by the financial allure of the open-plan office and its evil twin, hot-desking. Journalists have long worked cheek by deadline-driven jowl but the rest of the world has caught up fast.
Most people are doomed to either a completely open-plan office (23 per cent) or a mixture of open and private (46 per cent), according to a 2016 study by Steelcase, a US office furniture maker. The problem is especially acute in Britain, where high property costs, especially in London, mean 49 per cent of workers are stuck in noisy, distracting open-plan offices that make solitary work virtually impossible.

Above culled from Financial Times of London


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