AOL succumbed to the myth that creating an eclectic workspace makes employees suddenly more innovative. The headline from USA Today reads: “It’s engineers gone wild at AOL: Quirky office space inspires app innovation.”
“The space you work in is a reflection of the kind of company you are,” says Brad Garlinghouse, AOL’s president of the Application and Commerce Group. “You get innovation,” he insists, from “working in a space that’s very open and doesn’t have offices…where people can work together and play together.” Further, the company believes letting workers draw on the walls helps creativity.
AOL is in more trouble than I thought. Simply putting people in a different workspace is not going to make them more creative. A room full of beanbag chairs, Frisbees, and white boards does not change the cognitive pattern of how people generate ideas. It may indeed hamper innovation. For example, employees treat other’s ideas differently depending on where the ideas come from. An idea from a peer rival is seen as “tainted,” whereas the exact same idea coming from an outside source is seen as “tempting.” In essence, employees subvert great ideas from peers so peers do not get ahead. Lumping people together in quirky innovation rooms triggers that phenomena as it signals the battle-of-the-brains has begun.
True, office design can indeed have a positive overall effect on employees’ work. For example, a well-designed office can improve productivity, communication, and morale. These are certainly beneficial for creativity. But these are beneficial for every business process. It is innovation, though, not productivity or otherwise, that is singled out and associated with quirky rooms. This misguided hype gives innovation a bad name.
Instead of spending millions on 225,000 square feet of “innovation rooms,” AOL should invest in building something much more important: skills and competencies in the use of innovation tools and techniques. With the right innovation training and practice, employees can innovate anywhere in any space.
The writing is on the wall for AOL. Quarterly earnings were a mere $4.7 million versus $34.7 million a year ago. It’ll take a lot more than quirky office space to cover that shortfall.