Is Creativity Anathema to Your Office?

A creative mind is both the gift, and the bane, of my existence. It led to out-of-control daydreaming in school and night terrors as a child—a rich imagination can’t be turned off, and the same churning brain that easily generates new ideas also generates an endless supply of anxious thoughts.

In the workplace, creativity has its value, despite the annoyance less creative people often seem to feel toward creative, eccentric people. So the question arises: Does your company encourage or unintentionally discourage creativity and new approaches?

Entrepreneur magazine published a list of 5 Ways to Inspire Creativity last year, which gives ideas ranging from offering flexible schedules to encouraging breaks, listening to new ideas, filling your office with sensory experiences, and facilitating a team mentality.

All those things are good ideas, but I’m curious whether any companies consider creativity as a serious ideal—something they would mention in their mission statement. And then I wonder if making it a part of a mission statement, and working at it, would make creativity less likely to happen. It seems like creativity happens best when it isn’t forced, but rather is inspired. It’s a hard thing to mandate, and may even come down to the “muse” that artists talk about as giving them the inspiration to work.

For me, creativity is best triggered by a loss of control and structure. For instance, I find outlines and pre-determined formats stifling. I don’t enjoy working within those frameworks, so I tend to find projects that require following such formulas as laborious and joyless. Those feelings then make me shut off my creative thinking valve (as much as I can shut it down). This isn’t true of all people, though. I’ve heard some creative people say that having a framework they are forced to work within helps them productively channel their creativity. For example, I’ve always hated writing poetry that follows any literary structure. I would always rather write a free-form poem than a sonnet. But I’ve noticed that most writers who are drawn to poetry love to fit their writing into one of those formats.

What kinds of formats or frameworks do you provide employees with, so they can both get their work done and be inspired to generate new ideas, and offer their own take on projects? Do you feel, like I do, that as little framework as possible is a good idea, or do you feel that a hefty amount of structure works best?

I prefer privacy for introspection, so I like high cubicle walls that allow me to be unseen by others, and allow me not to have to see them when I want to escape inside my mind to find new ideas and envision how a project (in my case, an article) should turn out. My ideal work setup would be an office with a closed door and a big window that my desk would be turned toward, with my back to the door. A bell people could ring, with a notification appearing on my computer screen and phone, to alert me of visitors who want to come into my office and talk. I would feel more secure to go deep in my thinking without worrying about a hand tapping my shoulder from behind at any time to interrupt me.

It’s always seemed to me that introspection and creativity go hand-in-hand since new ideas and visions reside inside our heads, and it’s hard to get deeply into your own head without thinking and daydreaming. How else can you get into your head, except by introspection?

But not all creative people rely heavily on introspection. I’ve heard of creative people who get inspired by interacting with others, and feeding off of other people’s ideas and energy. They like open-plan office layouts with no cubicle walls and frequent interaction, and a lot of noise and interruptions.

In addition to considering the amount of structure to give employees in their projects, you need to decide how much control to give employees over their work environment. Do you think they should be able to choose whether or not they have cubicle walls? Should offices be designated as a choice that any employee can sign up to be put on a waiting list for, or should offices only go to employees based on seniority? The thing is, not all senior employees are happiest isolated in an office, and there are low- and mid-level employees who would do their best work in a private, quiet setting.

There are many questions to ask yourselves when thinking about how to foster creativity in your workplace. The first question is to decide if you truly want creative people, and then how much you are able and willing to accommodate their needs.

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