25 (120) 2016
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Creating a workplace for creative people

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In a working life full of quick changes, our ability to be creative and innovative is the key to success.

But what role does the design of the workplace play for our creativity? And how are ergonomics and innovation connected? Anders Lundhal, Ergonomist at Kinnarps at Kinnarps, talks to ergonomics researcher Rob Stuthridge.

We're moving from a predictable and controlled working life to one that is increasingly characterised by change. To be successful in this new, more unpredictable – but also freer – working life, individuals, organisations and society as a whole must be creative and innovative.

How do today’s workplaces help us to live up to this demand? Not particularly well, says behavioural scientist and ergonomics researcher Robert Stuthridge. ”We're creative and innovative beings by nature, and our work offers us greater or lesser opportunities to find an outlet for these qualities. Workplaces characterised by control, routines and fear of change, where the staff are viewed as production units rather than as people, offer the least opportunities. Unfortunately, there are still many of these workplaces; they're going to find it difficult to maintain their position in future.”


Mr Stuthridge thinks that the physical environment is often a mirroring and magnification of the culture of a workplace. It can impede or stimulate the individual’s creativity, and help or obstruct the organisation in developing its full potential. The most successful organisations accept change, encourage new thinking and use design to stimulate discussions, inventiveness and development. Others are instead based on control and boundaries, and would prefer to eliminate all uncertainty through rules and routines which deter the employees from innovative thinking and action. ”Excessive control kills peoples’ creativity and makes the organisation sluggish, ponderous and, in some way, inhuman. Development results instead from a positive attitude to uncertainty and change. By being quick-witted and fleet-footed, and having flexibility inscribed in their DNA, organisations can not only survive all changes, but actually derive benefit from them.”

For heart and head

Mr Stuthridge suggests that work should be planned, organised and performed in a way which utilises the individual’s potential for fresh ideas. The physical design of the workplace is an important factor in this. ”We should set out to create a working environment that feels comfortable and appeals to heart and head. Without compromising on function, workplaces must take actual people as their starting point – who they are and what they are capable of, individually and collectively. We have to create person-centred rather than process-centred workplaces.”

Is there any connection between what you are saying about creativity and ergonomics?

”Absolutely, a strong and self-evident connection. The most simple way to express it is that both creativity and ergonomics entail putting people first. Adapting the job to the individual, rather than the reverse.”

Does that mean that the most ergonomic workplaces are also the most creative and innovative?

”It’s not that simple. It depends on your view of ergonomics. If the term is used superficially, and simply refers to the workplace’s physical design, then ergonomics doesn’t have much to do with creativity. But if we understand that ergonomics isn’t just about how we sit, stand and carry things, but about a holistic way of thinking about people, organisations and technology – then, yes, ergonomics has a major impact on inventiveness.

How to encourage new thinking

So how are person- or human-centred work- places designed? An overall requirement is that there are no hierarchies in the physical design. Instead, it should reflect a horizontal organisational model in which innovation and development can arise anywhere, and it should affirm the importance of the individual in enabling the organisation to thrive and perform well. The innovative workplace contributes to the organisation’s functionality and capacity to achieve its targets, for example in terms of profit, but it is also a pleasant place to be. It enables people to meet in a natural way, as they would also be able to do outside work. Even if employees have different tasks, the workplace doesn’t need to be physically divided.

Mr Stuthridge thinks that physical divisions contribute to separation between teams and departments when we should, instead, be creating a feeling of shared engagement in how the organisation performs. ”For example, a salesperson can choose to sit with someone in the accounts department, because they get on well together or because they both like that particular spot in the office. The point is to offer an inclusive environment that the individuals can customise according to their wishes and work tasks. On a more tangible and detailed level, it can entail flexible furniture and mobile solutions that suit everybody, regardless of age or physical capacity, and areas that can quickly be modified to incorporate new technology and new ways of working together.”

Of course, all this places high demands on management

 ”The task of management is increasingly to remove obstacles to the staff’s inventiveness. Don’t get in the way and don’t stop people’s natural impulses to come up with fresh ideas. Uncertainty and change are an unavoidable part of working life, and organisations that want to be successful in the future must utilise people’s capacity to be creative. Both creativity and ergonomics entail putting people first. Adapting the job to the individual, rather than the reverse.”

For more information: www.kinnarps.pl/ergonomia

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