Let employees cover boring, white walls

When my employer upped sticks and moved our offices to a newly constructed office building, I knew I’d need time to get used to a new routine of getting to and from the new location, but I did I had not imagined that I would spend my work days in an open-concept office at a desk without cubicle panels, surrounded by stark, white walls and an excess of glass and metal.

The new space is sleek, modern, and contemporary with grey carpeting, blonde, laminated flooring, open work spaces, and plenty of natural lighting, design that is meant to appeal to millennials, but it can be sterile and depressing.

White walls, are not stimulating and can affect productivity. According to  a study by University of Texas researcher Nancy Kwallek, who is quoted by Stephanie Vozza in a Fast Company article Why You Should Never Paint Office Walls White: “‘Color not only affects a person’s mood, but it can also hinder a worker’s effectiveness.’ and points out that “‘White doesn’t help us be productive, and most work environments are white, off-white, or gray,’ says Kwallek, who suggests the sterile quality isn’t conducive to work.”

That scientific evidence that institutional décor that feels stunningly cold is unproductive likely comes as no surprise to anyone working in this type of environment.

It wasn’t just the bare walls. My co-workers and I grumbled about the disruptive nature of the open spaces and lack of privacy. All of us disliked the clear-cut view of one another’s computer monitors, while a handful of us complained about being in full view of glass-enclosed meeting rooms located next to our desks, and while the acres of blank walls sparked a visceral response in me, when the art arrived, accompanied by its corporate custodian, the pieces hung in our work area were a disappointment.

As I soon learned, professional curators are responsible for a company’s “collection” making the focus on the art as asset, art as an extension to how the corporation views itself—its culture, its brand (read: how it wants to be viewed by its customers and competitors)—but there are people behind those decisions, and so the art tends to be traditional works, staid. Like one might find in many banks, financial institutions, and law offices.

Ernst and Young sees art from the employees point of view, too, says its director of national marketing in a Globe and Mail article Working with Art, by Katherine Harding, asserted that art is not “simply nailed to their walls to impress clients, but also to keep employees happy and excited about where they work.”

Emotional response to our environment is studied by neuroscientist Colin Ellard, BSc., PhD., from the University of Waterloo. In one study, Ellard described participants’ responses to two buildings in Manhattan in an article Streets With No Game (https://Aeon.co). He described the collective emotional state of test participants standing in front of a non-descript building as “being on the wrong side of ‘happy’.”

“In front of the blank façade,” Ellard explained, “people were quiet, stooped and passive.” Comparatively, “At the livelier site, they were animated and chatty, and we had some difficulty reining in their enthusiasm.”

Is it employees hemmed-in by bleak décor for eight hours a day get on the right side of happy by allowing them to decide what they wanted to hang on the walls?

Curating artist works from staff could seem to some as inviting disaster, but a study of Exeter University’s School of Psychology found that employees are happier and healthier when they have some input into their workspaces. A second study noted in Karen Higginbottom’s article The Impact of Art in the Workplace (Forbes.com), noted the impact of art “regarding work ethic/motivation, creativity, stress-level and general well-being” to be “greater on women than on men.” Even though male respondents “rated art (39%) as one of the most important elements of interior design of the workplace compared to other elements.”

If it were up to me, I would commission a mural by Tyler Toews and hang works of art by Gregg Deal and Norval Morrisseau. I would reprint poetry on the walls by Aislinn Hunter, Michael Crummey, Wislawa Szybmorska, Kevin Paul, Gregory Scofield, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and Rupi Kaur. I also like Klimt, Van Gogh, Munsch, and Hopper, so any prints of their work is a win for me.

Others might go for Adam Lister’s pixelated eight-bit watercolours, or graffiti-style murals. There could be linogrphps, ink illustrations, and black and white photographs, such as Paul Nicklen’s wild life photographs, or Toby Sicks’ Inkdigenous tattoos. Some might like to look up from their laptops and duo-monitors to the beauty of Julie French’s stitched textiles, or Justin Gaffrey’s colourful, acrylics, sculpted on the canvas. Others might delight in video installations such as Nettie Wild’s “Uninterrupted,” video of “wild salmon-bearing river” displayed on a continuous loop on the concrete underside of a downtown Vancouver bridge.

I would curate art that speaks to the cultural background of my colleagues, too, and include artists from India, Russia, Italy, Romania, China, Japan, Mauritius, Israel, Serbia. In hallways and work areas, collaborate spaces and meeting rooms, there is plenty of wall space to display something that appeals to as many employees as there are tastes in art. Something for everyone.

I imagine that among my IT colleagues, a self-made, sticky-note mural might be a winner, like those featured on www.designboom.com. It illustrates the lengths employees will go to cover boring, white walls.