On 19th March, we hosted a panel discussion in the Shoreditch House Library to explore how the design of spaces and rituals – whether physical or digital – can affect creativity and happiness.

We spend a huge percentage of our time at work in offices, studios and meeting rooms, working within tightly structured systems. You may have felt the effects of how light and noise can change your working mood, or been exposed to the anxiety of hot-desking in a crowded office. But how much does the design of our workspaces actually affect the way we feel, how we interact with colleagues, and shape the quality of our ideas and outputs? 

Continuing our focus on sharing ideas to support health, wellbeing and creativity in the workplace, we hosted a panel discussion in the Library at Shoreditch House to explore how the design of spaces and rituals – whether physical or digital – can affect creativity and happiness.  

We heard from Oliver Marlow, Creative Director at Studio Tilt, who shared his expertise on the relationship between space, collaboration and creativity, and touched on the ideas included in Spaces for Innovation, the book he co-authored with Kirsty Groves. Oliver was joined by Mita Sparke of Second Home, a business creating and managing workspaces and creative hubs to support creativity and entrepreneurship in cities around the world. Finally we heard from Tim Dorsett, Culture Ambassador at Innocent Drinks, a brand renowned for its strong and energetic culture and iconic office space, Fruit Towers.

Here’s what we learned.

Cohesive cultures 

Oliver opened the discussion with a look at how cooperation and co-working, the key to all successful man-made cultures, has evolved over time. At the most basic level, for as long as we have been in existence, collaboration has been essential to our survival and domination over other species. 

He highlighted “the challenge of engagement”: how humans engage with one another in order to be able to work cooperatively and cohesively. The key to this is “flexible thinking” – the ability to understand the thought processes and approaches of others. An effective co-working process is one that begins with preparation and exploration (sharing and engaging with a diverse range of ideas), followed by incubation (absorbing and processing information) and concluded with a period of reflection and evaluation. 

Oliver then expanded with an explanation of what he calls “systems thinking”, using the symbol of a spiral to demonstrate how interconnected, “circular” knowledge – as opposed to linear, isolated thinking – is more effective, as it draws and builds on past knowledge; systems thinking means not separating the different facets of a topic and accepting that everything is connected. 

Finally, he touched on the “hygiene” (aspects of the physical space such as lighting, heating, seating, and so on) and “motivational factors” (abstract elements of working life such as targets or a sense of purpose and achievement) that are essential to productive workspaces, opening the floor for our second speaker, Mita Sparke, of collaborative workplace network, Second Home.

Building a workspace

Mita opened with the alarming claim that 70% of startups don’t survive, mostly due to a lack of access to partnerships and networks. It is this accessibility issue that inspired Second Home’s philosophy and goal to build and nurture workspaces that aid collaboration and community. Mita used a Winston Churchill quote to emphasise the importance of the workplace: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Significantly, Mita spoke about the importance of physical and figurative transparency in the workplace, describing the way in which glass is used to break down barriers between members of Second Home. Interaction between members is a priority at Second Home, where communal lunches at long tables, or shared, curved desks encourage increased communication and synergy. Communal spaces offer an opportunity for people from different industries who are otherwise unconnected to challenge preconceptions and innovate collaboratively. She cites the example of a Second Home workspace, in which a real estate company was exposed to the possibility of incorporating Virtual Reality (VR) technology into their business, after a chance encounter with a VR startup based in a neighbouring space. 

Community spirit 

Mita also spoke about the things that can be incorporated easily into even the most traditional workplaces (“plants and pets make people happy”), revealing that food – an integral part of any community – is used at Second Home to encourage communication between members who are otherwise disconnected. At a long, communal table, a young tech startup entrepreneur can connect with an estate agent over lunch. 

Mita’s emphasis on the importance of aesthetic, calming “chill spaces” was supported by Tim, who is Events & Communications manager at Innocent’s west London-based “Fruit Towers”, tailor-made for a flourishing and successful work culture. He described how Innocent was and is built on the simple idea that happy, engaged employees are more productive. 

Disrupting hierarchies

Again, the idea of transparency was addressed, as Tim reinforced the importance of a group-owned workspace, free of physical barriers such as individual offices. Disrupting and dissolving hierarchies is part of Innocent’s philosophy that everyone is valued, essential to the shared sense of purpose that aids effective and cohesive work cultures. In his words, Fruit Towers is “our office. It belongs to everyone.”

While Tim listed dozens of examples of the quirky aspects of working life at Innocent (a wall of employees’ baby photos “reminds us that we are all equal”, “cloud lime” – a display of failed ideas and projects “reminds us that mistakes are ok” and “sexy power-suit day” – an occasion on which the entire office donned suits for the day, was just “for fun”), he paused to reflect on the importance of balance. “We have to remember that it’s still work.”

Where do we draw the line and how do we distinguish between gimmicks and systems that are actually valuable additions to the workplace? In the Q&A session that followed, each of our panelists agreed on the fact that there must be a balance. “Not everyone at Innocent is an extrovert,” acknowledged Tim, in recognition of the importance of “escape spaces”. Mita agreed that productive workspaces must respect individual as well as collective needs: there is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to workspace design and culture. 

Wellbeing

When asked how we can measure the value of the activities (yoga, after work clubs, communal lunches) and design features (curved desks, standing areas, hotdesking) that supposedly promote “wellbeing”, our panelists had different responses. Mita, whose experience of such activities at Second Home has generally been a positive one, of increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, admitted it is difficult to determine how such things translate into tangible figures, such as profit and growth, while Tim said he uses regular surveys to get real time feedback from employees at Innocent.

With a sense that we had barely scratched the surface of this vast topic, the discussion concluded on a reflective note, as Oliver suggested that wellbeing in the workplace is something that will gradually adopted, and is reflective of a general trend of change in the world: even “the American model of working people to death is starting to change.”


Photography by David Townhill.

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