February 15, 2019
A survey exploring art in the workplace (‘Making Art Work in the Workplace’) conducted by the British Council for Offices (BCO) found that almost 88 percent of respondents felt that “art is more relevant in the workplace than ever before”. Yet, with the arrival of the generic modern office, full of open plan space and glass partitions, we frequently find ourselves rather short of walls on which to hang any workplace art in the first place. “There are no bloody walls left’ and those that are left are glass,” protests Jack Pringle of architects Perkins+Will, pointing to the fact that traditional hanging space is on the decline.
“It’s harder to accommodate art in a modern building because there are fewer offices and white walls,” says Friedhelm Hütte, head of art at Deutsche Bank, who currently own 57,000 works and counting.
With just shy of 94 percent of people saying that art makes the workplace feel more welcoming and many companies making the link between art and employee productivity, surely it deserves to be put on the table at the design phase, not tacked on as an afterthought. Often this issue simply comes down to art not being considered from the outset. Pringle continues, “Where art is important or will be important, it has to be talked about right up front and then it’s not an accident whether it’s incorporated in the right way. If the workplace is to overcome the major challenge that the contemporary office poses to art, companies need to be prepared to “integrate art at the earliest opportunity” and “to adopt a modular, flexible art strategy;”
Relevance is King
Considering art early not only allows for the obvious pre-thinking of locations of pieces, it is also an opportunity to think about what art means to the company and its purpose once on display. “The benefit of art in the workplace is to be able to communicate the values of a firm. If it’s just lipstick on a gorilla, it’s a sham” says Pringle and of course, he’s right.
Art says something about a company and not simply from an aesthetic perspective. The strategy itself is crucial to integrating art into the values of a business. Is the company investing in todays’ contemporary stars or is it taking a grass roots approach championing young artists? The rationale counts for as much, if not more than art itself. In a world that demands bang for buck, it makes perfect sense to ensure that workplace art is contributing to business objectives and relevant to the company and its people. In fact there is evidence from workplace researchers IDR to suggest that when employees are given an element of control in customising their workplace, including choosing the art, productivity and wellbeing can be enhanced by as much as 30 percent.
“Art has to be part of business strategy rather than a one-off tactic” says Mark Catchlove, director at Herman Miller and working environment expert. “Given that 80 percent of business cost is people… companies should place more focus on maximising the output of its key asset- staff, if you can increase productivity by even 2 percent or 3 percent, it becomes worth it.”
Art for All
It’s unsurprising to discover that it’s usually managers on decision-making duty when it comes to art. 81 percent of the BCO survey respondents said that art was chosen by senior staff, leaving no room for the positive impact of employee input when it comes to their working environment. That said, getting consensus on a piece of art isn’t always straight forward which could explain the general leaning toward a dictatorial approach. According to the survey, the tendency when it comes to art is to focus on public and client spaces in the workplace. “It is key is to display art across the building,” it surmises. Playing favourites on the subject of client versus employee spaces limits scope when it comes to staff retention, productivity and wellbeing.
With flexible working so widely practiced, the office is competing with an array of working places from the back garden to the local caff. “We want to encourage people to be here,” explains Andy Moseley, UK head of workplace at KPMG, “art is one of the subtle strategies we use for doing that.”
The agile workforce now mature, office space is becoming condensed. However, like a good stock, reduction can enhance the strength and flavour of a space. Companies have an opportunity to make the most of the square feet they do have by thinking ahead and proactively including art friendly spaces.
A proverb that urges us to build walls there is not. Counter to cultural dogma that dictates walls are for knocking down, in the case of art you’ll find that they can be both practical and powerful in uniting all for the love of art. Bring back the wall!
Chloé Adams is Managing Director at Little Van Gogh.
By Robert Frost