How to make the most of art in the workplace

About the event

Art in the office is not just a nice-to-have: it can actually improve productivity and employee engagement – as long as you do it right, that is.

With organisations increasingly signalling prudence and accountability to a wide variety of stakeholders, the days of indulging in a trophy corporate art collection are numbered. But that does not mean that art has no place in the modern workplace. Indeed, a 2012 survey by the company International Art Consultants revealed that not only did 90 per cent of respondents say that there was art in their workplaces, but 94 per cent of them felt that art made the place more ‘welcoming’. Another study, by Dr Craig Knight at Exeter University, demonstrated that workers in an ‘enriched environment’ could be up to 32 percent more productive than those in lean, or functional, environments.

Alex Heath, Chair of International Art Consultants, joined Knight to share best practice advice during an Art at Oxford Saïd seminar on 11 December 2019.

Embrace the opportunities of modern workspaces

Work environments have changed. When offices were characterised by expanses of white walls it used to be appropriate to hang many traditional pictures in frames. Now there is a lot more glass; many more flexible, open-plan spaces; large atriums; and informal, multi-use ‘breakout’ areas. These form an ideal setting for innovative, dynamic art on a large scale, such as the interactive light installation in the atrium of the London offices of global law firm Allen & Overy.

Eschew the ‘lean’ office

Many organisations have attempted to translate the principles of Lean Six Sigma – reducing waste and reducing error – into the office. The underlying idea is that all that people do in a workplace is the job. They should not be distracted by fine pictures, plants, souvenirs from holiday, or even hot drinks. However spectacular the location, the lean office is bare, functional, and often surprisingly close to the open plan ‘bullpen’-style clerical offices of the nineteen-hundreds. It is, said Knight, a ‘toxic’ environment.

And enrich the space

In a series of experiments with office workers, Knight and his research team asked participants to perform two tasks designed to measure speed and accuracy in a workspace that was either lean or ‘enriched’ – that is, that contained plants and pictures. They discovered that the people working in the enriched spaces were 17 per cent more productive than those in lean spaces – and they made no more mistakes.

Even better, let workers enrich their own space

A continuation of the experiment saw people undertake the same tasks in an ‘empowered’ space, which they were able to design themselves, and in a ‘disempowered’ space, where the individual’s design was redesigned by a ‘manager’. People sitting in the empowered spaces were 32 per cent more productive than their lean counterparts without any increase in errors, while the performance of those in the disempowered spaces reduced. ‘Letting people choose their surroundings gives a huge fillip in terms of how they feel, how they perform, and how they engage with what’s going on,’ said Knight.

Heath described a project with Barclaycard in which members of staff were encouraged to organise the space on one floor of their flagship building in Canary Wharf. The interest and ‘homeliness’ of the floor decorated in the pilot project was so attractive that they had to put a lock and key on the door as everyone wanted to work there.

Quantity is important

One tiny piece of artwork may be worth a fortune, but if it is the only piece of art in an office it has little more effect than the completely lean environment. People want to see and be surrounded by the artwork, even if it is just prints in frames or photographs.

Encourage people to work in groups

People enjoy working as a team when creating their own space. Yes, they need to be able to come to an agreement between themselves over selection and positioning of the objects and artworks. But, Knight said, they always do: ‘I have never yet had an occasion when the group did not come to consensus. And when they have consensus they all buy in.’

And lead the design rather than being design-led

If you add a designer to the team you can achieve extraordinary results, but it is important that the designer does not impose their own ideas, however creative. ‘If you go into a space and realise your own identity – that is, see bits of yourself – that makes a good space,’ said Knight.

Office spaces today are effectively competing with broadband. It is increasingly easy to work from home or a café – both of which surely come under the definition of enriched spaces. However, where we work is a fundamental tenet of our identity, and it is a place in which we meet and work with other people. People still want to come into offices. If they are trusted and given an input into their surroundings it creates a sense of psychological comfort. Both performance and engagement are increased.

How to make the most of art in the workplace