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October 2013 | See all articles in this issue

Messy desks, putting greens & ping pong

Recognizing and encouraging creativity in the workplace may mean breaking a few of the old rules about where & how we work.

Most of us realize that the state of your desk says a lot about the type of person you are. Workers who are productive despite piles of files, notes and more on their desks are often a genuine irritant to those who feel compelled to maintain a clear, clean workspace. It’s one of those workplace arguments that never seems to go away.

However, researchers from the University of Minnesota took a closer look at these personal habits and what they say about other aspects of behavior. A team led by Kathleen Vohs, a consumer psychologist and professor of marketing at the University Of Minnesota Carlson School Of Management, examined the behavior of people working at messy and clean desks. Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that mess encourages something that firms, industries, and societies want more of - creativity.

"Previous research has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things, such as not engaging in crime, litter and showing more generosity," Profesor Vohs said. "We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

Initially, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one with papers and office supplies strewn about randomly.

Afterward, the participants were given the opportunity to donate to a charity and invited to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out. The researchers found that being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

In another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls. Overall, the participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.

Intriguingly, when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one – a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. In contrast, participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

"Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people's behavior," Professor Vohs said. "Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe." (To read the complete report, follow this link.)

Putting greens and ping pong

Dyn, a New Hampshire technology company that provides DNS and email services to large internet companies as well as small businesses and home users, is one of a growing number of successful firms that have reinvented the traditional work place to attract talented employees. The company’s workspace includes non-standard amenities like a large putting green, indoor climbing wall, and two secret speakeasies (one of which has a giant stuffed 12-point buck head).

The company points out that technology has made it possible for work to be done anywhere and at any time. In a world in which coffee shops are startup incubators, an office has to offer value and bring out the best in your employees.

The theory is that giving talent the space to experiment is key and one aspect of that is an environment that encourages creativity, mentally as well as physically. Because great ideas don’t come from sitting at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, the goal is to create an environment that encourages inspiration. Camaraderie is another aspect of this creativity as is “play.”

According to the leadership at Dyn, “We found that a game of ping-pong was the best way to smooth over the relationship. We’ve also found the putting green to be the ideal location for a manager to give tough feedback to an employee – perhaps we associate golf (a truly humbling game) with instruction and critique.”

There are downsides to working in this kind of space: a group working on a deadline will no doubt be frustrated by others playing ping pong, and so on. And because this workplace requires more space, it can be expensive (Dyn actually sought out cheaper space to make this work.) (To read more, please follow this link.)

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