Offices often aren't the best places to work.
If you're like most members of the Great American Labor Force, at this very moment you're probably sitting in a cramped cubicle, listening to your neighbor clip his toenails while you scarf down a pizza slice on your "lunch hour," awaiting a meeting in which three of the 17 people invited will dominate the conversation and follow with a flurry of e-mails, instant messages and requests for conference calls.
Work? How can you even think with all this noise?
And yet, the office -- yes, the one with the cubes and the conference rooms and the allegedly efficient flow of communication and ideas -- was supposed to set you free. At least to do your job, anyway.
In 1968, the business furniture company Herman Miller introduced the "Action Office." It was meant to be an antidote to the desk rows and walled offices then in vogue, the kind you see in old black-and-white movies. It was going to be the office of the future, the kind of place where you could really get things done.
In a manifesto, Action Office designer Robert Propst railed against "our information deluge" and complained about the office's sedentary nature -- "the result (of sitting), as medical studies and insurance data make clear, is a steady decline in vitality, energy and general body tone," he said. His new idea: an environment that would create a healthy balance between collaboration and privacy, and promote variety over gridlike formality.
Unfortunately for all us cubicle dwellers, most of Propst's Action Office ideas were ignored. Action Office had desks of varying heights, community areas and expansive work surfaces, at a time when the only desk-bound technology might have been a phone and an adding machine. (Computers, of course, were so large they filled separate rooms in 1968.) It was the partitions that became the selling point, and consequently we ended up with the rabbit warrens that dominate offices today. Propst ended up a foe of Action Office -- or, at least, the way it was used.
An office doesn't dictate creativity, of course. Generating ideas, cross-fertilizing those concepts with others, having the time to work through the ideas' possibilities, transmitting them to the wider world where the process will continue -- they're all part of a complex dance of individual capabilities, group dynamics and corporate cultures
But key to its success is an atmosphere, both physical and psychological, that allows people to be at their sharpest.
Creativity is a huge topic in the business world, which wants to tap into the energy of a million light bulbs.
Just listen to the buzzwords that get reduced to meaninglessness: "Ideate." "Synergize." "Holistic." "Intellectual capital." "Outside the box." "Work smarter, not harder." Or read the books: "The Business Playground." "The Progress Principle." "The Rudolph Factor." "The Firefly Effect." "Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative."
And yet too often creativity is stifled rather than encouraged. To paraphrase the old saying about weather, everybody talks about corporate creativity ... and everybody talks about corporate creativity. No wonder so many people tape "Dilbert" strips to their screens, or repeat lines from the film "Office Space."
There's a lot of truth to the complaints about the corporate mind-set, says Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor who teaches a course in business and creativity.
"There's often a lot more constraint, there's often a dismissal of new ideas inside business organizations," she says, adding that "doing creative work inside organizations can certainly be more challenging than doing creative work on your own."
But still, she adds, an office can be an engine for creativity -- if tuned correctly.
"There can be a lot of stimulation in working with other people, especially if they have different backgrounds, different perspectives, if they come from different disciplines," she says. "That can actually spark ideas, as long as people can effectively communicate. And it can be more fun to do creative work with others."
'Work together, or we fail alone'
But how do you accommodate the idiosyncrasies of so many "others"?
It's hard enough getting people to understand one another across departments. It's an even bigger challenge when they're of different personalities.
Creativity doesn't always call attention to itself. Susan Cain, author of the recent book "Quiet" -- which is subtitled "The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" -- observes that creative people are often inclined to solitude and often don't speak up in the meeting-room situations that dominate many corporate settings. And don't even think of brainstorming: Studies have continually shown that it doesn't work. (Incidentally, being introverted isn't the same thing as being shy or misanthropic: Introverts may prefer less stimulation, but they still may have strong social skills.)
Moreover, we live in a world where the cultural ideal is that of the extrovert -- the ebullient type who thrives on public exposure. As Cain observes in her book, business has honored the extrovert at least since the days of Dale Carnegie, whose "How to Win Friends and Influence People" has been a best-seller since it was first published in 1936. Even Jesus wasn't immune: Eleven years before Carnegie, the advertising executive Bruce Barton published "The Man Nobody Knows," which portrayed the Son of God as "the world's greatest business executive" in part because of his salesmanship abilities.
And yet there's much to be gained from the qualities of introversion, Cain points out. Introverts are comfortable with time alone. They tend to work more deliberately and with greater concentration. Socially, they enjoy small groups and listen more than they talk.
So offices need to bridge gaps between extroverts and introverts. And the best examples of creative workplaces find ways to do so.
"Especially in this day and age, there's good evidence that our problems are getting harder," says Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book "Imagine: How Creativity Works."