Thursday 23 May was set to be a busy day for Russell Glover. As well as his usual workload leading design across multiple client projects, he was due to take part in a panel event as part of Clerkenwell Design Week and vote in the European elections, not to mention the fact that Peldon Rose was in the midst of moving offices. Taking a seat next to the village duck pond as he waited to vote, he had an unexpected moment to himself. His mind wandered, taking in the peaceful scene around him, and then – a creative breakthrough – a design problem he’d been mulling over for days was suddenly solved. ‘I was relaxing in a rare moment of peace, enjoying the natural environment and the reflected light from the pond,’ explains Glover. ‘I wasn’t actively trying to solve the problem. There was no expectation or pressure, and yet it was arguably the best bit of thinking I would do all day.’
This phenomenon is more common that you might think. When we’re trying to solve a problem, we often start by understanding the challenge and then immersing ourselves in data, but if we spend too long in conscious concentration, we can lose the mental capacity to connect memories and stored information with new data – i.e. the ability to solve the problem. Research shows that stepping away and doing something else entirely can help our subconscious to make those vital links. It opens our brains to something called the ‘default state network’ that is characterised by interacting brain regions – and is deactivated during conscious goal-oriented thinking. ‘There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something […which] is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation,’ says Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play.
So, how do you enable the sort of free thinking that fosters creativity and problem solving in your workplace? Short of relocating your team to the village green, or installing a body of water in the middle of the office, how do you create those ‘duck pond’ moments? ‘Walk around the building before you start designing and find existing connections to nature,’ says Glover. ‘There might be a great view you put some seating in front of, or a corner that gets flooded with the morning light that you can leave open. Don’t over-design – create spaces without too much expectation and people will find different ways of using them.’
Culture, as well as nature, plays a role and giving people the choice of where and when to work as well as permission to leave the building is crucial. ‘You need a variety of spaces for rest and play as well as work, so people can choose what suits them – and that won’t always be in the office,’ says Glover. ‘Walking meetings can be much more productive than those held in formal meeting rooms. There’s something about talking while moving forward together that fosters consensus in a way that sitting across a table from each other just doesn’t.’ Research backs this up – Stanford University found that people’s creative output is 60% higher when they walk rather than sit, and neuroscientist Andrew Tate argues that the increased blood flow to our brain helps us to express our ideas more fluently.
Want ‘duck pond moments’ without the duck pond? Find connections to nature; create a variety of spaces for work, rest and play; and encourage your team to walk away from the problem from time to time. They’ll come back with better ideas.
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