Patrick McCrae: Why art is the secret weapon to boosting staff productivity

The positive impact of art on our physical and mental health has long been understood. Florence Nightingale recognised this 160 years ago – long before the term ‘wellbeing’ had been coined – when she wrote: ‘Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.”

However, the potential to build a more engaged and productive workforce through the power of art is rarely discussed. Research has shown that the character of a workplace affects job satisfaction, motivation and mood. Art needs to become part of this conversation.

Some HR departments might be sceptical that art can improve staff engagement and creativity, but the concept is supported by a solid evidential base. Dr Oshin Vartanian, from the University of Toronto, has conducted extensive research on the neuroscience of aesthetics and creativity; he found that art activates the brain’s default mode network – the area associated with internally orientated thinking – helping us to retrieve memories and think about the future, as well as engaging our pleasure and reward systems.

In 2019, a survey of 81,000 employees for the Leesman Index, a comprehensive study of workplaces, found a median satisfaction of office art and office photography of just 37 per cent. Three-quarters (75 per cent) of those sampled said artwork and photography provisioning in their workspace was 55 per cent satisfactory or less.

Research by Dr Jenny Thomas, director of a performance consultancy, found that, whilst many organisations had installed artwork in their reception or meeting rooms, few had introduced it to the main office area. Seven out of ten workplaces had no artwork installed and 95 per cent of people could not see any art from their workstation.

She conducted experimental studies, changing aspects of a workplace, including the temperature and air movement and providing access to a new breakout space, but the biggest impact came from introducing artwork. Staff said they were more alert in the afternoons, avoiding the traditional post-lunch dip in concentration, and the art promoted social interaction.

Research by ARTIQ suggested that people were 14.3 per cent more productive when they were in a workplace that featured art compared to a workplace that featured no art; according to research by the British Council for Offices in 2013, 61 per cent of employees said artwork inspired them to think and work more creatively.

We should not be surprised because art enables positive, cognitive distraction and creates spaces that are both active and connective. It engages staff, helping them to think beyond the four walls that surround them.

Art has this impact because it is innately human, encouraging the viewer to engage and find meaning. Yet having artwork in the workplace is meaningless if no thought has been given to its relevance to the specific environment. An office art collection should tell a story; it should connect to the brand values and heritage of a business, creating a clear and authentic narrative.

Global law firm Mayer Brown recently worked with ARTIQ to develop an art collection for its London office, following an extensive modernisation and refurbishment programme. An art committee was set up, bringing together a group of partners and employees from across the office to choose works for the collection, including painting, sculpture, prints and street art. It was developed around the themes of diversity and equality to reflect Mayer Brown’s commitment to promoting a diverse workforce – 86 per cent of the art is by female artists. Artists from outside the UK, or who have recently graduated and are trying to build a career, are also well represented.

Not only has the art collection become a talking point amongst staff, it is also a visual representation of the firm’s values, which can easily be explained to visitors and prospective hires. By supporting emerging artists, the firm is also acting as a patron, supporting the creative economy at a time when it is under increasing strain – the UK invests 40 per cent less than the European average as a % of GDP in art – and bridging the gap between the corporate and creative worlds.

Investec, the international banking and wealth management group, wanted the art collection at two of its London offices to reflect its culture of diversity and innovation and to compliment the design by architectural and design firm TP Bennett. Reflecting the business’ heritage, the collection features the work of vibrant, dynamic South African artists alongside London-based artists, telling stories of identity and diversity.

ARTIQ catalogued the collection and worked closely with Investec to design and build an online auction platform, giving employees the opportunity to purchase the artwork that has been part of their working environment for many years. The initiative worked on two levels: first, as an effective means of employee engagement, including a pop-up exhibition to mark the launch of the new collection; and secondly, as a way of supporting contemporary artists.

Investing in an office art collection might sound like the preserve of big corporates, but in fact it does not have to be unaffordable. An art rental model allows any business to host an expertly curated collection without breaking the bank – £1,600 a month might be typical for a medium-sized business. It also allows a business to refresh the collection every few months, making it a continuing talking point amongst staff and a point of interest to clients visiting the workplace.

But, above all, an art collection is a compelling way for a business to articulate its values and express its identity – both to its own staff and to the wider world.





Patrick McCrae is chief executive of art consultancy ARTIQ.