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Faculty & Research


Spaces for Creativity: Unconventional Workspaces and Divergent Thinking (Revision 1 )

Working Paper
In recent years, companies have been experimenting with unconventional workspace designs—often characterized by bright or odd colored walls, unique light fixtures, unusual office furniture, vibrant artwork, display of atypical non-work-related objects, and casual and playful atmospheres—to promote creativity among their employees. However, empirical evidence on the effect of such unconventional workspaces on creativity has been lacking. Using an experimental approach, the authors examine the causal relationship between unconventional workspaces and individual divergent thinking—the cognitive process of generating many and distinct ideas to solve a creative task. Across four studies involving a total of 1,191 participants, contrary to their initial expectations, the authors discovered that unconventional workspaces do not always facilitate divergent thinking and can even be detrimental to it compared to conventional workspaces. Specifically, solving a creative task in an unconventional workspace had a negative effect on divergent thinking when features of the workspace were related to the task. Those task-related features would anchor the respondents into limited solution paths, hindering divergent thinking. Hence, the positive effect of unconventional workspaces was significant only when the creative task was unrelated to features of the workspace. The authors were able to replicate these findings in an online setting by allowing individuals to virtually experience workspaces, implying that it may be possible to facilitate divergent thinking in virtual work environments. This study contributes to the behavioral operations and organization design literatures by empirically establishing the causal effect of unconventional workspaces on divergent thinking and offering important boundary conditions to such an effect.

Professor of Technology and Operations Management