The workplace has been a hot topic in the past few years due to the dramatic shift to remote and decentralized work. Most of the conversation has revolved around the home versus the office: the options of a reduced commute, more time with the family, fewer meetings, and so on. But what about how place can actually influence creative inspiration and productivity?
When we consider optimizing our workspaces, we usually think in terms of organization, comfort, and reducing distractions. Whether at home or in an office environment, the idea is to make where you work fade into the background, so you can focus. This tends to downplay the far more active role place can play in our work.
Business tycoons, scientists, and artists alike have found inspiration and motivation in their surroundings. Here are just a few examples of how places of all kinds influence the way we work and can act as creative catalysts.
Rethinking the Workspace
A study from the University of Exeter suggests that customizing a workspace can make us happier, more at ease, and up to 32% more productive.
It’s a truth recognized by Warren Buffett. His workspace is carefully calibrated to provide him with inspiration: it features his father’s desk, motivational sports memorabilia, and what he calls “instructive art” – framed articles about financial disasters that act as cautionary reminders.
It’s worth exploring the possibilities of what you can do with your own workstation.
For example, this employee turned his cubicle into an idyllic mountain cabin! While your options might be quite limited depending on where you work, you could make a big difference simply by thinking about the sensory experience.
By treating your desk as an essential part of your work, rather than somewhere you’re desperate to get away from, you can positively affect your productivity and wellbeing.
Space to Think
Thinking is a crucial part of any job. But could trying to do it at our usual workspace, where we’re distracted by notifications and the pressure to tick items off the to-do list, be interrupting and inhibiting our thoughts?
You have a workspace, but do you have a thinkspace?
For celebrated Agatha Christie, the bath was her thinking space. She would relax in the water and let her mind slowly construct her plots as she munched on apples.
And she isn’t alone. The legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, and Legend of Zelda) also credits his most famous work to the time he spent thinking things through in the company bathtub. Yes, Nintendo had a company bathtub.
For Christie and Miyamoto, the distance from anything resembling their usual workplaces enabled them to let their ideas mature organically. While not all of us are lucky enough to have company bathtubs, the rise of remote and hybrid working does mean it’s becoming more practical to select a location based on the particularities of the task at hand.
Back to Nature
Countless studies have shown that nature is beneficial for productivity and creativity. Even looking at a leafy screen saver can restore your focus and improve your sense of wellbeing.
Many companies are trying to harness this with biophilic design. It aims to integrate the natural world into the office through the use of living walls, water features, open spaces, and natural lighting.
It’s been shown to improve people’s productivity and combat stress.
Actually getting out into nature to work is also gaining traction. Many seasonal projects have been set up to offer people an outdoor working space, such as TREExOFFICE, a treehouse-style installation created for London’s Hoxton square in 2015.
Weather and Wi-Fi permitting, it’s possible to head out into your garden, the park, or to a local nature spot. Tethering is your best friend. Get an external power pack or mini solar charger. Every picnic table should be viewed as a potential space to reenergize your work.
Location as Constraint
Maya Angelou was known to rent a hotel room just to do her writing in, confining herself to an impersonal space to remove distraction. Artist Ellsworth Kelly took this idea to the extreme and made an entire country his isolation chamber: “Paris was gray after the war. I liked being alone. I liked being a stranger, I didn’t speak French very well, and liked the silence.”
Often the place isn’t of your own choosing though. Richard Branson’s career began in two unlikely places: first in a friend’s basement and then when the vicar offered it to them rent-free, in a church crypt where Branson used a slab of marble balanced on two tombs as a desk.
From these two uncomfortable bases, he and his friends successfully ran a magazine together. He believes that the suboptimal conditions might even have helped: “It was chaotic and cramped, but we made the most of it, and the close proximity made for lots of interesting collaborations.”
Even if the constraints are predetermined and the limitations are outside your control, there’s the possibility of discovering an unexpected silver lining. Whether it’s isolation or a lack of space, our brains can respond to constraints with heightened levels of creativity.
“A simple change of scenery can bring about powerful shifts in the flow of time and emotions” – Haruki Murakami
One of the most common pieces of advice, when you’re feeling stuck, is to step away from your task for a while. In fact, we owe one of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history to a walk. It was during a stroll in the park that Nicola Tesla came up with the idea for an alternating electrical current.
Whether it’s a walk, a session in a coffee shop, or a trip abroad, exposing yourself to a new environment could be the push you need to come up with a winning idea or to defeat a mental roadblock. Even if you don’t have any profound breakthroughs while you’re there, a getaway will still help you to recharge.
When the Place Becomes the Work
“Art grows out of the landscape in which it is formed. The art that has influenced me comes out of very different landscapes.” – Judy Tuwaletstiwa
Place doesn’t necessarily have to be just a backdrop – it might end up informing the work itself.
Paul Cézanne was so fascinated by Montagne Saint-Victoire in the south of France that he kept returning to the landscape, painting it over 50 times. Architect Zaha Hadid took inspiration from ice formations when designing a series of train stations for Innsbruck in Austria, creating glass structures that harmonized with the mountainous region. Former advertising copywriter Peter Mayle moved to Provence in France and wrote many memoirs and novels, all drawing on the beautiful scenery and colorful characters of the region.
Montagne Sainte-Victoire, by Paul Cézanne
Environment can directly inspire people in less traditionally creative careers as well. Inventor and chemist Fionn Ferreira grew up spending time ocean kayaking and beachcombing near his family home in Ireland; seeing the growing effect of pollution on the environment firsthand inspired him to create a method for removing microplastics from water.
Right Place, Right Time
Flex-work and the decentralized workspace are opening up more ways for you to integrate different places into your routine. Beyond working from home, there are always co-working spaces and informal destinations like coffee shops and parks.
If you want to take the experimentation further, then you could try a ‘workcation’. Rather than a vacation where work is an unwelcome intrusion, this is a deliberate trip to experience a new location while intentionally working. Communities are being set up to specifically address the needs of the “workcationer” (trademark pending) which include everything from the obvious – great Wi-Fi – to essentials like childcare.
Being a digital nomad takes it further, with people choosing to abandon a fixed base altogether and explore the world as they work.
From getaways to non-traditional offices, space can profoundly influence productivity, creativity, and problem-solving. Treating your workspace as more than just a neutral stage for your work could have a significant impact on your success.