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05 Oct 2018

Is creativity the new productivity?

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UK workers are among the least frequently creative, trailing US, Germany and France. But how can we design our workspaces to combat that, asks Zoe Humphries, a senior workplace consultant at Steelcase

Category: Interiors

It’s no secret that the United Kingdom is falling behind in workplace productivity. As the digital revolution continues to reshape the world of work and the global economy, a recent McKinsey survey shows that the United Kingdom continues to rank toward the bottom compared to advanced economies. In response, many organisations are seeking answers and – rightly so – recognizing the physical environment is an incredibly powerful asset to engage employees and drive change. They come to us to find a solution – how can workplace design drive productivity? While an important issue and question, I find that thinking in terms of productivity can actually be counterproductive when tackling the complex issues businesses are facing today and in the future.

 While productivity is certainly a valid measure – businesses need to profit! – framing it as something to solve for or “drive” from employees immediately frames the challenge in old modes of thinking. Productivity conjures associations of machines, process, the old order. It implies quantity over quality, solving familiar problems faster or better – not solving new problems differently.

 Instead, research points to creativity as the key to success. Being creative at work is critical for organisations, as technology takes over routine tasks and competition and disruption come from all angles. Employees who are willing and able to identify and solve new problems, try new things and enact and respond to change will make the difference. Creativity also drives business value; McKinsey research finds strong correlation between creativity and financial performance.

So how does the United Kingdom stack up in terms of creativity in the workplace? Not great. We recently completed a global study to uncover creativity at work, showing that UK workers are among the least frequently creative, trailing US, Germany and France. Employees in the UK report to be able to work creatively less frequently than those in other leading economies, with only 36% of UK workers creative on a daily basis.

What’s Holding Creativity Back in the UK?

While over half of UK respondents (52%) indicated they would like to be more creative at work, the

study provides some indicators as to what’s holding our workers back.

More UK workers than the other countries survey rank workload as an issue, with 42% reporting it as the biggest barrier to creativity, followed by organisational process. It’s perhaps not surprising that UK workers were more likely to say technology and physical space are barriers – considering the UK has more than twice as many open-plan offices than the global average with 49% entirely open plan.

Unlike the other lower-ranked countries, UK workers don’t appear as eager to catch up on the more creative countries. Spanish workers most want change with 62% wanting more creative opportunity, followed by Japan (60%) and France (57%). Meanwhile UK workers are in-line with the two countries where workers are already most frequently creative - matching US workers who want more opportunity at 52% and only outpacing Germany (44%).

UK is the only country where over half (53%) expect their job will require the same level of creativity in five years. UK workers are also least likely to believe their job will require more creativity in the next five years, with only 32% saying they believe this will be the case.

Overcoming Barriers

Despite the barriers, over half of UK respondents are seeking opportunities to stretch their creative muscles. And they aren’t alone in the struggle – organisations worldwide have found creativity doesn’t bubble up spontaneously. While some markets are ahead, the truth is that most employers feel their organisations aren’t creative enough and most employees don’t believe they are living up to their creative potential on the job, according to Adobe’s State of Create 2016 study.

Building a Creative Culture

The good news is that creativity does not rest on brilliant people or aha moments. Creativity is a process. When the conditions are met to foster creative work, everyone can benefit. 

We recently partnered with Microsoft to better understand what organisations can do to empower every employee to be creative. We found that creativity is not linear but a process, and organisations must build environments that support both convergent and divergent thinking involved. This is where workplace design and the physical environment can help facilitate change.

Understanding that space shapes behaviour, fostering creativity starts with providing areas for people to come together in groups as well as spaces to move apart to work individually. The right range of spaces and technology can remove barriers, ensuring employees have the right space and right technology when they need it.

While traditional corporate offices were designed for the old model of productivity, others have mistaken creativity for collaboration and pushed for all-open plan spaces with minimal privacy. None of these take into account the creative process that includes large and small group collaboration as well as individual focus work.

This understanding is driving the shift away from traditional corporate office toward workplaces that are more like creative studios — an ecosystem of spaces designed to inspire and support people and the technologies that can make their work easier.

Zoe Humphries is a Senior Workplace Consultant at Steelcase

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