Why Does the Office Environment Sometimes Block Creativity?

published on Mar 15, 2016 by Ilina Nacheva

Creativity is one of the most valued words in the contemporary world of business. According to the Future of Jobs Report, released in January 2016 by the World Economic Forum, creativity and mathematical reasoning will be the top valued cognitive abilities in the nearest future. Authors claim those abilities will be “a growing part of the core skills requirements for many industries”.

But What Does It Mean to Be Creative?

Future of Jobs Report defines it as “the ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem”.

Creativity is usually seen as a personality trait that resides within the individual, which means that options to increase it are limited. But recently the attention of social psychologists was caught by the situational factors that affect the creative potential of people.

The question is why we find ourselves more creative in certain contexts and less creative in others? One of the possible answers is psychological distance.

From the perspective of Construal Level Theory (CLT), psychological distances – in time, space and social surrounding – changes the way we think about a particular task or a problem. In other words, this is one of the ways we can increase our creativity.

For example, when we work on the development of new business product, our office environment enhances the importance of being concrete. Deadlines and details seem more important. Attributes of existing projects and solutions on the workplace channel our thoughts and associations more on what was already done, rather than on what is possible to do differently.

Experiments prove that psychological distance can help people think in more abstract frame. When thinking on high construal level, people are looking at the bigger picture, they focus on central features of objects and situations. This means that psychological distance is important in terms of changing the focus from the level of details to conceptual level. Sometimes when problems seem far away, they are easier to solve.

If we go back to the example with the development of a new business product, in an office surrounding the process is more likely to be experienced as occurring now, here, and to ourselves. This often brings limitations and blocks in the creative process, because these experiences are connected to the question “how it looks in details”. This distracts the focus of attention from “What?” and “Why?“, questions which have broader frame. More abstract thoughts might lead to contemplation of innovative and inconvenient solutions.

These findings suggest that activities like traveling to new places, change in the work environment and removing the signs of the usual organisational culture and procedures from a situation, actually can increase creativity in business.

The same trend can explain the effectiveness of practices like creative sessions in open air, frame and perspective changing in generating ideas, Synectics techniques etc. More general working experiences like Power weeks in the nature can demonstrate clearly the influence of spatial distance on creativity.

Perhaps the differences in environment, with its increased access to people and diversity of sights, sounds and other stimulations (perhaps even unusual food) from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly.

In short, if you are still wondering: Why does office environment sometimes blocks creativity?, relax – the problem is not in your office. It is just the Psychological distance in our heads!