Kelvinwright's Blog

postmodern thoughts

Could offices hack our senses to improve creativity?

Dilbert - office noise What does your office smell like? Does the noise disrupt you? Or does it help you be more creative and productive? I came across an article that explained how a growing body of research suggests that smells and sounds can have an impact on learning, performance and creativity in schools. Some head teachers have recently started to broadcast noises and pump smells into their school classrooms to see whether they can boost student grades.


As somebody charged with people development, anything a little out of the box is going to grab my interest. According to an article that I found, studies have demonstrated that children attending schools under the flight paths of large airports fall behind in their exam results. In an experimental study, noise was created whilst children completed cognitive tasks; the result was a significant negative effect on exam scores and a poor performance in numeracy, in literacy, and in spelling. The sound of chatter of other children was also particularly distracting.


The article got me thinking about the postmodern, open plan work space. If sounds like loud chatter, police sirens, aircraft taking off or coming in to land, and road works are distracting to children, then why should they not be distracting to adults? I started working in offices after graduating in the late 90’s. In some offices, I found was that anytime a colleague’s phone rang, anytime two colleagues started speaking right next to me, or any time there was a noticeable change in the background noise, I was distracted, and I looked up. Many of us have no doubt experienced the colleague who just loves to start up a conversation when we are in the middle of something creative. I remember working in one brand new open plan office that also had an open plan kitchen installed. We dreaded the day that anybody brought a fish meal in for lunch and heated it up in the microwave!


As companies look to optimise workspace, cramming more people into the available square metres, maybe it is time to consider the impact of noise and smell on creativity and productivity. Anybody with a seat next to a corridor, a meeting room, or who sits in an open plan call centre will empathise here. Sound distraction can be exhausting.


What researchers have found is that people are more creative when the background noise is at a medium level, rather than too low or too loud. When the background noise is too low, any slight variation can distract us, much like a darkened room with a flash light going on and off – you notice it much more. Loud noise on the other hand harms creativity. It is perhaps for this reason that coffee shop chains are popular haunts for writers. I remember working in an American Telecoms company – we often held brainstorming sessions in the company coffee shop and I often went there to think ideas through. Maybe it was the smell of coffee as much as the hum of background chatter that helped me concentrate.


There are apparently schools that are pumping music, noises and fragrances into the classroom to see if they can improve exam results – could these ideas work? Could they be applied to the workplace? I would be interested in hearing from people with experiences in any of these areas (negative or positive).


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December 7, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,

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