Tall ceilings, lofty thoughts

Several of the small and medium sized tech companies I’ve had the pleasure to visit are in former industrial buildings. The main rooms where most staff work are large: great halls holding sometimes over a hundred desks in a few variations on open plan office design.

Having worked in open plan offices, cube farms, shared small offices with a door, and individual offices, I’ve experienced the influence of the environment and various levels of proximity to my colleagues on my own job performance. Having colleagues nearby can improve communication and collaboration at the cost of increasing distraction. Noise and distraction can impede focus for detail-oriented work. Designer Amar Singh has written an overview of office design and its effects on productivity.

If open plan offices are an unmitigated damper on productivity, why are they used by many thriving technology businesses? Why do architects create wide open spaces specifically for innovation [Toronto, Mississauga, Stratford]?

Divergent thinking is the engine of innovation. Joan Myers-Levy and Rui Zhu published a study in the Journal of Consumer Research in August 2007: put people in rooms with higher ceilings and they tend to use more abstract, divergent, creative thinking. We find rooms with high ceilings beautiful and want to spend more time in them. These lofty workspaces have plenty of natural light or simulated daylight. Light and space give us a sense of security, allowing us to work more effectively and feel more engaged.

These modern idea-factory floors feel welcoming and roomy, though I confess the larger spaces are at the edge of my comfort zone. My memories of working in open plan offices years ago, with ceilings around eight to ten feet, are associated with feelings of stress and crowding. The lofty, bright caverns of innovation spaces evoke a sense of possibility, some even wonder. The difference is profound.

Innovation spaces that include smaller group rooms [e.g., RED Academy] and quiet offices for convergent and detail-focused thinking provide a mix of environments to support the full Design Thinking process. Regardless of whether the formal Design Thinking discipline is used, the creativity and engagement of people working in these spaces is undeniable.

By incorporating light and space, today’s innovation factory floors overcome many of the disadvantages of previous generations of open plan offices. The height, which can’t be achieved in older buildings designed for office work, is critical to their success.

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