Innovating Outdoors

by Scott Bowden

Many of us possess fond memories of warm spring or early summer days when instead of sitting in a stale, cold classroom we were given the opportunity by a cooperative teacher to escape the confines of the building and enjoy a class outside. My favorite occurred when I was teaching a university course outdoors in Washington, DC and, by sheer coincidence, President Clinton walked by to greet students in the courtyard after giving a speech nearby.

My students probably remembered shaking the President’s hand more than the content of my outdoor lecture that day, which points to the most common criticism of holding sessions outdoors – the fact that all the distractions outdoors impede the learning experience. Students who are hearing birds chirping, watching other students walk by, feeling the sun on their faces, or shaking the President’s hand (though this is a rare occurrence) are not immersed in the topic at hand in a class.

However, a lot can change in 20 years and the notion of allowing individuals to be outside to inspire creativity and productivity is becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace. For the innovation practitioner, this is particularly important as the most important thing we can do in our innovation sessions is open the eyes and minds of our colleagues to drive new thinking.

Two recent articles highlight this phenomenon and point to the benefits of departing from the stale environment of the traditional workplace. An emerging trend in workplace aesthetics is the greater choice school of office design, which stipulates that employees should have a wide variety of areas in which to work. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Emma Silverman identifies the increasing importance of integrating outdoor space into office design, and points to the productivity benefits that can accrue to companies that give their employees great choice in workspaces. For those of us who spend time thinking about the logistics of getting groups of individuals into a room to develop creative approaches to solving big problems, Silverman’s observations pose some interesting questions.

Silverman identifies numerous examples of companies that have added outdoor space to their office plans to improve worker productivity. Twitter, for instance, included a 20,000 square foot deck at their new San Francisco headquarters building, giving employees the opportunity to take their meetings outside. The trend is not limited to the free-wheeling dot com firms, as manufacturer BASF and advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather in the New York area both have integrated outdoor spaces into their offices in the New York area. Silverman notes that these workspaces are part of the school of thought where “workers do better when given a variety of spaces—such as cafe tables and lounge areas along with regular desks— in which to do their work.”

Gone (hopefully) are the days of a cubicle farm surrounded by a handful of overbooked, windowless conference rooms and a small kitchen/break area. Workers are demanding more and varied spaces for their workplaces and do not want to be limited to a single work area.

The benefits, while mostly subjective in nature, can be striking, as relayed by Ogilvy and Mather executive Cynthia Lindberg, who, speaking about the roof deck in New York, states that “[y]ou go up there for an hour, and you really feel like you’ve gotten out of the office, but you really haven’t left the building.”

Although there are challenges to working outdoors (humidity, bright sunlight, wind, distractions, rain), the hope is that the benefits outweigh the costs for most workers. Industrial Designer Jonathan Olivares, author of a recent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago on outdoor work spaces, offers the following advice to those who are trying to create the right outdoor space:

  • Make outdoor work areas appear as business-like as possible, not leisure-settings
  • Ensure there are enough shaded areas to allow for the use of laptops and tablets in bright light
  • Use rectangular tables with sufficient power outlets and seating
  • Provide some privacy for workers in outdoor meetings.

With the right setting, an outdoor workspace can enhance worker satisfaction and, presumably, improve productivity and creativity.

Another assessment of outdoor productivity appears in Gretchen Reynolds’ article on the value of brief strolls. Although the benefits of strolling accrue to a person walking inside or outside, when we think of a stroll we usually envision leaving the confines of a building and immersing ourselves in the world that surrounds us.

Stanford professor Marily Oppezzo, writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, designed a study in which participants sat in a dull room with a treadmill and performed a series of creativity tests. The subjects who performed the creativity tests while walking on the treadmill performed much better on the creativity test than did the subjects who sat at a desk to complete the test. In fact, the walkers came up with 60 percent more uses for an object than the idle test group.

Oppezzo also set up a test in which the participants went for an indoor walk before the session and were given the test while seated (noting the impracticability of the treadmill for a work environment). In this scenario, the walkers again outperformed the sedentary subjects on the creativity test. Oppezzo’s third test case involved having the subjects walk outside prior to the test. Interestingly, while the walkers still outperformed the non-walking subjects, the benefits from being outdoors were no greater than walking indoors.

Oppezzo hypothesizes that walking improves the mood of the subject, which may increase productivity. Likewise, she also notes that walking could divert energy from processes that the brain normally engages to limit creativity, and thus the activity leads to a breakthrough in terms of freeing the mind from these typical confines to allow for freer, more open, thought processes.

For the innovation practitioner, several lessons can be gleaned from these articles. First, although Oppezzo’s study did not find a discernible benefit from walking outdoors versus indoors, the increasing trend of designers incorporating outdoor spaces into new work areas suggests that there is value to giving workers a variety of areas in which to work, both inside and outside. Moreover, anecdotal evidence abounds from any person who has escaped the confines of a stale, climate-controlled work space to spend a little time outdoors.

The phrase “clearing the mind” is often associated with getting outside and taking a walk, and this is not something that would happen in the typical stroll indoors. From a creativity standpoint, the larger number of stimuli from a walk outdoors (sun, grass, smells, trees, leaves, birds, wind, clouds, etc.) far exceeds the typical list of stimuli from a walk inside the office, where the most prevalent smell is typically burnt popcorn from the microwave.

A second lesson learned from these articles is that when we are choosing a work area outdoors, we should be cognizant of the key attributes that Designer Jonathan Olivares highlights as necessary for a functional outdoor work space: a business-like setting, shaded areas, rectangular tables with power outlets, and privacy. While sitting on the grass may be free-spirited and fun, it may not be conducive to the productivity we need to demonstrate in our innovation sessions.

Finally, the results of Marily Oppezzo’s research highlight the importance of exercise and motion to spurring creativity in workshop participants. It may not be sufficient simply to take a team to an outdoor area and expect the great ideas to start flowing. Going from one sedentary locale to another is not enough. Rather, the innovation practitioner may need to have the team go for a short stroll before the session, whether indoors or outdoors, in order to free up the thought processes that will enable them to generate creative thoughts.

If we are trying to inspire participants in our innovation sessions to think outside the box, we may want to begin by getting them outside the office.

Sources:
Rachel Emma Silverman, “Bringing Work to the Great Outdoors: Forget Free Snacks, Companies Are Installing Roof Decks, Patios; a Faux Skylight to Fight Winter Blues,” Wall Street Journal (November 20, 2012).
Gretchen Reynolds, “Take a Walk, Boost Talent,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (May 5, 2014).

image credit: acidcow.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.