Don't blame your work environment, take control!

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Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcón on 5 November 2014

I’ve trained people in creative leadership skills for many years and it often occurs to me that there is a surprisingly big barrier which stops people ‘swinging big’ and trying new things back at their office - it is (bizarrely) the office itself.

People use language like: “There are no spaces where people feel able to focus” and “Our meeting rooms turn people into boardroom monsters that are not open to new ideas!”

I must admit that I have huge empathy with these comments. Over the past few years I have seen the insides of hundreds of offices, from clinical pharmaceutical spaces to funky tech start up hang outs. It always alarms me the way corporate spaces can truly hinder creative thinking.

For me they are at either end of a spectrum - either way too loud or way too quiet. I was walking through an office just the other day (as a guest) and was speaking at my normal volume, which is admittedly louder than the average voice.  I was simply having a normal chat with my client when one of their colleagues steamed over with a finger in front of their mouth and hit me with a “Shhhhh”. I couldn’t believe it. I have also been in environments where the groovy hot-desking open plan space, with its usual cacophony of banter and music, means that people cannot engage in focused conversation which is essential for collaboration.

Whichever end of this spectrum you and your office are at, it should not be an excuse for ineffective working. It is like when we have a dinner party, and have perhaps invited more guests than our table allows. We figure it out, bringing in emergency chairs to make sure everyone is comfortable, before commencing on the serious business of eating.

It is the same at work and all too often we have to look at the room, breathe a heavy sigh and just crack on in adverse conditions.

You need to take control of your working environment and make it work FOR you, rather than AGAINST you.  Here are some tips to help you do that:

1. Get in there early

If you get into your space a few minutes before you need to be there you can quickly move things around so that they work harder. For creative sessions, I spend a lot of time moving the boardroom table to one side of the room. If I don’t move it then people sit around it and start behaving as though they’re attending a golf club committee meeting. The set-up can invite debate rather than collaboration.

2. Change physicality

Sometimes the very fact that people are sedentary means you’re not getting the most out of them. Get people to stand up, go for a walk - you’ll often find them being more focused and productive.

3. You’re the human. Fight that machine!

Most meeting rooms these days are geared up for efficiency with everything from telepresence to electronic white boards. On top of that, people are prone to turning up with at least two devices to any meeting.  This might not hamper things in some situations but if you are trying to encourage a bunch of people to have a proper conversation you need to kick the machine out the door! Digital distraction can actually lower our IQ and the average adult can take up to 15 minutes to get fully back on topic after a digital interaction.

4. Does it have to be in the office?

In many cases, getting out of your office is the best way to get people’s attention and make your meetings more engaging and memorable. Even the most exciting spaces become normal over time and put us into habitual thinking and behaviours. “On Tuesday at 12.30 I have the same lunch with the same couple of guys!” That quiet café or park round the corner could challenge that habitual thinking and also not allow any internal distractions to creep in.

5. People love a bit of effort

Whether you’re slightly tweaking your office space or taking people totally away from the office, the group you’re working with will always thank you. It’s like bringing an extra cushion to that dinner party. The fact that you’ve made an effort means you’re as bothered about them as you are about the work you’re about to do. They will, inevitably, give you more than your fair share of love back!

Matt Bolton-Alarcón is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at


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