Want Exciting R&D? Treat Your Workforce Like Entrepreneurs And Give Them Headspace

What fuels creativity? Some argue that it’s the challenge of a deadline. Others say that it’s the drive to solve problems and create a better world. From firsthand experience, I’ve seen how encouraging freedom drives ideas and innovation. Yet the way in which businesses across all industries structure their working days gives little allowance for this. Whatever the organisation or industry, to be progressive, teams must be freed up to create and experiment as part of their remit of work.

The obstacles that have prevented this from happening at scale are largely cultural. Pre-pandemic, typical office work cultures were shaped by long unsociable hours. Quite simply, innovators, problem solvers and creatives had no time or headspace to properly think. When Covid-19 struck, office cultures were further impacted because teams couldn’t be together. Meanwhile, the blurring of work and personal life boundaries meant that many workers felt ‘always on’. Burnout was impacting both mental health and professional output.

The importance of headspace

As a partner of a product design and innovation agency, I’ve always been curious about the concept of ‘space’ to foster creativity and R&D processes. In practice, we’ve tried different ways, over the years, to achieve this. Whilst the methods have differed, the objectives have always been the same: to create room for exploring solutions to challenges that felt important to us – both individually and as a company – from climate change and education to reimagining how young people might safely access social media through their digital devices.

Headspace is precious. How many times have you heard about some of the most groundbreaking ideas coming from idle and quiet time? Albert Einstein’s best ideas allegedly came to him when he was aimless. But headspace thrives the most if we collectively value it enough to protect it.

Carving room out for creativity should be intrinsically motivating. Providing a dedicated space for team members to find their passion and unleash their imagination in R&D allows them to try out new roles and develop new skills in different areas so that no one becomes solely defined by the work they do for a client. It’s a place for knowledge-sharing and exploration, trial and error. A safe space to fail and learn.

From my experience, the benefits of this are tangible, not just in the quality of ideas that are conceived but in the uptick in company morale. What’s more, providing room to think and space to breathe is applicable to any sector or role, not just creative ones. Many businesses today however have little respect for idle time, wrongly assuming that it will hurt productivity. But by encouraging a level of freedom and autonomy in employees, we foster space for creativity and entrepreneurialism.

So how can businesses feed a culture of creativity and R&D to reap its benefits?

Without question, our most successful method has been switching to a four-day working week so that an entire day can be dedicated to R&D driven by our own passions and agendas. Sometimes we explore product ideas that address the challenges of our time; sometimes we speculate on what the future could bring for certain industries and the part that our work can play in that future. With creative work untethered by the restrictions of a 9 to 5 / 5 days a week model, we can change the rhythm of how we work and be truly outcome-focused.

Businesses must take appropriate measures to ensure this ‘downtime’ is respected, especially when R&D time can get ‘stolen’ by unforeseen demands. Our ‘time in lieu’ policy ensures that it remains protected. Simple actions like this speak volumes about how much a business truly values headspace and the benefit it brings to productivity and work culture.

This creative space goes far beyond just team building. It’s about creating value-driven outputs. And that value doesn’t have to be realised as financial success. Offering teams the space to find their passion is hugely important in ensuring we remain an inspiring company to work with and for. Value can therefore be a provocation, conversation, disruption or just a new way of thinking about an issue that exists in society.

By doing this, businesses give room for exploration into underserved issues or problems that are not yet under the spotlight. This vital learning process enables richer conversations to be had and may provide a deeper understanding of the biggest challenges that may face an organisation’s client or consumer. By doing this, businesses cultivate a growth mindset, foster innovation and become more empathetic.

Ultimately, R&D should be used to inspire teams. It’s a form of rest as much as it is motivation, and is a space for individuals to play in order for their ‘work’ to be more enriched. By earmarking and respecting space for rest and play, employees feel empowered to collaborate, think creatively beyond the 9-5 and ultimately create better work. The paradox is this: to maximise the time spent producing our most valuable work we must minimise the time we spend at the grindstone. R&D can be a big experiment for business, but it only works if we value it enough to protect it and cultivate it as a space to explore ideas and develop solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. 

About the author: Dave Dunlop is partner and chief design officer at ELSE, an experience design consultancy in product and service innovation. 

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