Art in the workplace is currently enjoying a renaissance. As companies recover from the austerity of the recession, they are seizing the opportunity to improve the aesthetics of their workplaces by investing in design and artwork.

But a recent article citing new research now claims that art in the workplace can in fact boost productivity. With this idea in mind, I wanted to explore our use of art in office design and evaluate the concept of art and its effect on productivity in the workplace.

As a designer, art has always been important to me– both as a source of personal inspiration and also as a way to enhance my designs for clients. When we discuss the use of art in a client’s office design, we talk about its ability to stimulate creativity or inspire thought processes. We talk about its ability to reduce stress and improve wellbeing through its relaxing, contemplative nature. And of course, art can take so many different forms – from wall graphics and photographs through to sculptures and living walls – you can find a decorative effect to meet whatever mood you are trying to create.

Art is increasingly being seen as a way of incorporating an organisation’s branding into their office design. It can help tell the story of who they are, what they do and what they value. For example, the British Library, a place dedicated to stimulating learning and curiosity, chose to decorate its walls with posters of historic newspaper front pages, photography, campaign posters and drawings.

Technology firm, Splunk, chose wall graffiti to convey their funky, modern and forward-thinking brand image. By portraying brand values and brand identity, art can work to enhance company culture or instil new cultural values; a sense of pride in where we work, an appreciation of the wider world in which we are living.

Essentially the purpose of art in any situation is to create an aesthetically pleasing environment. It stimulates the senses and makes people feel good. In the workplace, the introduction of art is a way of an employer saying, ‘we care about the working environment’ or ‘we want to do something to create a nice place for you to work ’.

In this research by Dr Craig Knight at Identity Realisation (IDR), a workplace with art and plants was found to be more productive than one without. Dr Knight and his team created four different environments:

  • Lean: without any arts or plants
  • Enriched: with art and plants arranged by the researchers
  • Empowered: with art and plants that could be arranged by the workers themselves, however they liked
  • Disempowered: with arts and plants that were arranged by the workers themselves, and then rearranged by the researchers

The study found that those workers in an enriched environment were 15% more productive than those in a lean environment. And that productivity doubled when people were empowered, but reverted to lean levels when people were disempowered. The conclusion that has been seized upon by the press is that art makes us more productive, but is it the art that is making us more productive or what the art represents?

ThoughtWorks staff in open plan office fit out
Art detail in office design and fit out
FirstRand cool breakout space

One of the most interesting parts of this study is that when the art (and plants)were still present, but had been re-arranged by the researchers (the Disempowered scenario) productivity levels were the same as those within the lean environment, or put another way, the physical presence of the art and plants alone was not enough to boost productivity. It was a combination of being given these aesthetic objects and of feeling empowered that created the most productive scenario.

A case study that might provide further insight to this study is that of Thoughtworks. This progressive employer created an award-winning office design that was all about choice and flexibility – they created working environments that workers could use however they saw fit – whether they were playing table tennis on the ping-pong table or working from it.

One of the eye-catching parts of their design was their use of art. In their use of art, as with their overall design, they were saying to their employees, we value you enough to invest in your environment – we know it’s important to you and so it’s important to us.

This kind of expression is part of the now widely accepted attitude that workplace design and giving your people choice, can improve wellbeing, engagement and ultimately productivity.

In Dr Knight’s research, he concludes that not only are more aesthetically considered workspaces more beneficial to employees (and indeed their employers) but spaces where employees are empowered to make their own decisions will promote these more desirable behaviours.

And I think this is where art can indeed make people more productive. Its part of that wider message to employees to say, we care, and therefore that respect is reciprocated. It’s the message that an employer values their people and that by investing in their people, they can elicit the discretionary effort of an engaged employee that can indeed boost productivity. Whether or not you agree that art can affect productivity in the workplace, what it certainly can achieve is a more aesthetically pleasing environment that will leave a positive lasting impression on employees and visitors alike.