Space Matters – Surround Yourself with Creativity

My life has always been full of creativity. It was encouraged and celebrated in my home. Of course I didn’t realise it at first, because it felt completely normal to me, but was highly unusual for my friends when they visited. My father’s paintings and pastel drawings adorned our walls. My mother’s hand woven rugs and mats covered every conceivable corner. Creativity was all around us and it sent a clear message. Creativity is important.

In addition to the artwork and crafts on display, there was an even more important signal about carving out dedicated spaces for creativity. One of the bedrooms upstairs had been turned into my father’s art studio. It had a charming messy madness that reflected his creative style. Dull grey unpainted plasterboard walls had peeling posters of old exhibitions. A large set of drawers sat in the corner, each one filled to bursting point with handmade Swedish and Japanese paper. Along the window was a long trestle table scattered with a dusty rainbow of pastel chalks, alongside half-squeezed tubes of oil paints on a makeshift stone palette. On the opposite wall was an impractical, weather-worn, velvet chaise longue, stacked high with canvases that were painted to various degrees of completion. His easel took centre stage on the main wall, with a freestanding Sony reel-to-reel machine below it that belted out old BBC jazz shows at high volume. 

Downstairs, my mother’s loom almost entirely filled the room traditionally reserved for a dining table and chairs. In an Irish household this was invariably “the good room” and was only opened up when special guests arrived. But for us, it was another sacred space to practice creativity. This room was more reflective of my mother’s more organised Swedish approach, with shelves bearing baskets of carefully arranged homespun wools, handmade dyes, balls of yarn, and neat piles of recently woven blankets. 

The spirit of creativity and invention didn’t stop there though, with adjoining shelves (in the loom room) lined up with a host of boozy experiments bubbling and fermenting in oddly shaped glass bell jars. My father – tapping into his former existence as a biochemist for Irish Distillers – made a variety of primrose and elderflower wines, as well as fiery potent liqueurs from blackberries, sloes and other hedgerow berries. It was an experimental creative endeavour that brought together the mad scientist and the wild creative within him, albeit with lesser degrees of success than his art. The cloudy Chateau de Primrose 92 being a notable disappointment.

With that spirit of creativity and invention around me at all times, I learned a hugely important lesson about why space matters. The dedication of a physical space to creativity was an overt, open permission to create. The space itself (and the ready access to creative tools) meant there was an ever present opportunity for creative ideas to flourish. And the physical space undeniably translated into a vital mental space conducive to creativity, or at the very least, a place where it was possible to create. It was a lesson that stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Many years later, during my time at Google, that lesson was brought to life in a very real way when I established the Cloud 9 innovation space. At the time, the annual employee survey, Googlegeist, had seen a double digit drop in innovation scores. While my role was focused on Executive Internal Communications, I was extremely passionate about creativity & innovation and I felt strongly that we could communicate the investment in those areas in a non-traditional way to move the needle on Googlegeist. My thesis was that the path to building a vibrant culture of innovation was to make a physical statement that space matters. Specifically, a dedicated space that said creativity and innovation matters, and that ambition & invention are encouraged. The natural byproduct of this would hopefully elicit a feeling of investment in employee growth and push the Googlegeist innovation scores up accordingly. 

So I set about drawing up a plan to reinvent a disused cafe space on the 9th floor of the Google Docks building into a working innovation lab. It was a no brainer to me, but I would first have to convince several key stakeholders. That was not without its challenges, given the rapid expansion of the office and need for desk space, but I had thankfully built up credibility as an inventive thinker through my consistently creative internal communications, so I was given a seat at the table to pitch my vision. That was all I needed. 

Over several weeks I had passionate conversations with Ronan Harris (Head of Google EMEA), the Facilities team and the Site Manager, outlining the idea and painting a picture of what success would look like. In Silicon Valley there is a fundamental belief that data wins arguments, so I leaned into that and asked for one year to demonstrate the impact a space like this could have on our survey scores. I knew it would have multiple other intangible benefits too, but the hook of data was a language everyone could understand and get behind. We got the green light to set up Cloud 9 and we were off to the races. 

I assembled a core team of people from radically different roles across the company to undertake a design thinking approach to the space. It was critical to get different voices and perspectives that would reflect our diverse employees. We began by understanding our users’ needs (via focus groups), then we brainstormed design possibilities, which led to the exciting period of prototyping and building version 1.0 of a space that would be conducive to creativity and ideas. 

The room had a slightly unusual configuration due to the fact that it was once a working kitchen and cafe. In essence it was a square, with a large U-shaped set of stainless steel kitchen countertops that backed onto a blocky storage room. Rather than let that be a hindrance, we made it a feature of the space. We retrofitted seats into the counters, and positioned a whiteboard on the storage room wall, to reconfigure it into a makeshift teaching auditorium. Moveable tables and chairs were strategically placed around the room to promote interaction and the flow of ideas. Buckets and baskets of materials like post-its, 3D pens, whiteboards, markers, reams of paper, stickers, sewing machines, lollipop sticks and other crafty items were placed strategically on tables and countertops to allow for sketching out ideas and rapid prototyping. 

At the back of the room was my favourite feature. A set of three shower heads, replete with shower curtains, and on the wall instead of a set of hot and cold taps, was a set of noise cancelling headphones. If you’re anything like me, some of the best ideas present themselves in the shower, so we made this an active ideation area called the “Mind Showers”. Sure, it was cheesy, silly, slightly impractical, and ultimately underutilised, but it was a lovely idea that I’m glad we tested (and learned from).

Pretty soon we had a simple, fluid innovation space with all the basics you needed to spark ideas, build connections and map out ideas. Now, we had to educate everyone about Cloud 9 and the opportunities that awaited them there. This was my forte as an Internal Comms expert, and I leveraged every available channel open to me, including digital signage, sitewide announcements and even the Dublin All Hands, to build awareness of a big launch day for the space.  

For the launch event I called in several favours from my network to make a big splash. Ronan Harris, the Head of Google EMEA, was a huge supporter of the space and officially opened its doors, and Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist, flew over from our headquarters in Mountain View to kick things off with an inaugural Design Thinking class. The room was packed and there was a real buzz. There was a sense of possibility and creative energy that was palpable. I remember looking around the room and feeling real pride at that moment. Much like my childhood home, there was now a physical, usable space that actively signalled the permission to create.

The first few weeks that followed saw a great uptake of employee-led classes, impromptu team meetings, hackathons and more. I personally partnered with the Learning & Development team to deliver Design Thinking classes there, and the data showed that classes in Cloud 9 were 6% more favourably received than ones conducted anywhere else at the company. It was working. The impact I had envisioned was happening in ways I hadn’t expected.

Anecdotally I was also hearing from colleagues how much they liked the space and the opportunities it afforded, but the real moment of truth arrived when the annual Googlegeist survey rolled around again. I was nervous. But I needn’t have worried. We blew the score out of the water and the survey saw a 26% increase in innovation scores. Cloud 9 went on to become an established cornerstone of the EMEA Headquarters and like any good innovation space it evolved over time. In the end, data might have won the argument, but when it comes to fostering creativity and innovation long term, space matters. 

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