Art for the office – What the Stoddart Review says

There are many reasons you might be considering enhancing your workplace with art, but of these, you may not know how doing so can actually work to bring your workforce closer together. The art you hang on your office walls can encourage social cohesion, collaboration and productivity – let’s delve a little deeper into the science behind these ideas.

The Stoddart Review, published in memoriam of industry giant Chris Stoddart, examines exactly why office environments are so crucial to productivity. Created as a catalyst for businesses to change the way they utilise their working spaces, the Review assesses that British businesses tend to approach the goal of increasing workplace productivity by prioritising the utilisation of space, something that researchers believe has led design and occupancy strategies to support density at the expense of performance and productivity.

Stoddart Review researchers identified a huge disconnect between the workplace, the industry serving it and the people it is intended to benefit. While the report highlights that better use of workspace could give us an important productivity boost, research like this also shows just how far things still need to progress in this area for many businesses across the UK and further afield.

According to the Leesman Index (a database of workplace effectiveness performance), only half of employees say their workplace enables them to work productively. That is a staggeringly low figure for any organisation, and one that should be listened to, not ignored, by those who can make a real difference.

Overwhelmingly, people are expecting to get the workplace design right first time and are then leaving it alone for the next 10 years, The Stoddart Review explains. Demands on the workplace are constantly evolving and to maximise its impact in a fast-growth world means seeing it as a constant work in progress and budgeting and planning accordingly.

To help unravel all this, here are some pointers for how art in the workplace can make a huge difference to the productivity and social cohesion of an organisation.


Stress relief, improved wellbeing and a change in perspective

Giving employees time to think creatively about non-work-related topics can be very beneficial to the success of a business. In fact, studies have proven that engaging with visual arts can improve employees happiness, memory, and empathy, amongst other things. Angela Clow and Cathrine Fredhoi’s research for the University of Westminster (2006) found that after visiting an art gallery on their lunch break, staff returned to their desks with significantly lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their bodies – simply as a result of spending 35 minutes observing, absorbing and reflecting on visual art in a gallery space. Their research shows that the drop in cortisol was rapid and substantial; under normal circumstances, it would take around five hours for cortisol levels to fall to this extent (Clow & Cathrine).

Participants also self-reported much lower levels of stress upon returning to their workplace – a crucial factor when your goal is a happier, more productive workforce.


Improving communication

Not only has looking at art been shown to improve wellbeing, it also helps to strengthen and reinforce communication skills – an important contributing element when it comes to collaboration and team working in the workplace.

Neuroscientist Oshin Vartanian is an expert on the science of aesthetics and creativity, and notes that, as well as the more expected outcomes of processing and object recognition, the areas of the brain involved in processing emotion and those that activate our pleasure and reward systems are being engaged when we look at art. As writer Gabe Bergado phrases it, the brain is hard-wired to process art. You certainly don’t need a degree in art history or to have studied the Old Masters your entire life – it’s already inherent within us as human beings. Parts of the brain that are associated with contemplation are automatically sparked when we view art, even if we’re not thinking about it critically, he writes.

This is excellent news for visual art in the workplace, as it means that, despite what people might initially think, art really is for everyone – there is absolutely no right or wrong interpretation, and this can lead to some really interesting inter-colleague discussion. Having your workforce open up in such a way also allows them to communicate better when it comes to work tasks, particularly those involving collaboration with others. As Vartanian explains, you have this parallel situation where you are deriving a very instinctive emotion and a more cognitive, contemplative response all at once. It can make for a powerful experience.


Growing productivity levels: staff interaction and collaboration

The Stoddart research highlights the need for workspaces that allow for effective interaction between their staff. It is important to remember that human beings are social creatures and that work is ultimately a social institution. Indeed long-term relationships, from networking to friendships and sometimes even marriage, are often formed at work. In the best workplaces employers recognise that their staff want to forge these relationships and that company alliance can be built or strengthened from such things. In short, collaboration is contingent on social infrastructure.

Research from American-based company Gallup backs this up further, finding that one of the key dimensions of a healthy workplace is the presence of a best friend at work. Employees who reported having strong friendships in the workplace were 21% more likely to also report that they had the opportunity [at work] to do what they do best every day.

Ultimately, the Review believes that productivity growth needs action on all levels, from government, from the workforce and from firms themselves. It should be seen as a shared problem, and one that, when solved will offer shared benefits, in terms of higher wage growth and faster profit growth. Good workplace design is key to performance, engagement and the bottom line, and this makes it a really crucial consideration for all business leaders.

Featured artwork on this page – Top image; artist Gareth Griffiths.