Where flexible working employees really want to work? Starbucks.

Starbucks CafeLeaving aside the fact that most surveys are designed to further the commercial interests of the firms that commission them, most offer a deal of insight into what drives people and organisations, some of it unwitting. Most telling are often the specific details that lift the veil on the motivations and attitudes of individuals. So it was with a recent survey from Overbury that headlined on the idea that poorly designed offices hamper creativity, but also contained a question that was answered in a way which suggested that the place most staff would like to work would be something akin to their local Starbucks.

When asked what they most want to change about their offices, UK workers claimed that the most positive steps their employers could take to boost creativity were:

1. More social space (25%)

2. Better heating/cooling (24%)

3. Provision of food and drinks (22%)

4. Better quality furnishings (21%)

5. Nicer coffee (18%)

So no mention of anything directly related to job roles, organisational structure, flexible working, technology, management, working practices or training. Instead they want a nice, free cup of coffee, to be more comfortable and with friends. Whether that would make them more creative or even productive is debatable although it would probably make them happier.

In fact we know pretty well what makes people more creative without asking them. Research shows that most people have their best ideas when they’re not even working or their minds are somewhere else, at times when they are alone and their subconscious minds are more in control of processing information. It is a point reiterated in last night’s edition of Horizon on the BBC, available on iPlayer.

Some factors have also been cited that indicate that happy workers are not necessarily more creative. Far from it in fact according to  Modupe Akinola, a professor at Columbia Business School, who explains the link between angst and creativity in a research paper called The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity.  Her conclusions add credence to the experience of the world’s great artists, many of whom enjoyed their most fecund periods when gripped by personal misery.

As well as being unhappy, research suggest that other sources of greater creativity might include being bored or even drunk. Now, nobody would pursue any policies in the workplace that promote unhappiness, boredom and intoxication but we can conclude that when you use surveys to query individuals about how to improve their performance, they may be answering a completely different question of their own making. If the Overbury survey is anything to go by it is likely to consist of something to do with what they’d rather be doing than working.

Lucy Kellaway argued in typically powerful fashion in the Financial Times this week that we’ve gone too far in the way we empower people to work where and how they want and that the pendulum needs to swing back. One of the ways we can add a little bit of momentum to this backswing is by questioning the suggestion that creativity has anything whatsoever to do with ‘nicer coffee’.

by Mark Eltringham

Addendum: This exact subject was also covered in typically informed and witty fashion by Adrian McNeece, whose thoughts on work and workplaces are never less than outstanding.