What do schools and the typical open office have in common? They are creative deserts.

In general, the organization and decor of offices is managed by considerations of costs, company branding, and interior decorating trends than psychological considerations of how our surroundings influence our behavior and performance. But it appears that having a measure of control over your environment is linked to increased productivity.

Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam ran an experiment in 2010 where some office workers in London were allowed to arrange an office with plants and pictures, and others weren’t. The result was startling: those given the flexibility to tinker with their offices were up to 32 percent more productive than those in the stark and inflexible settings.

In particular, the presence of office plants or a view of natural landscapes with plants has a large impact on people’s attention when doing demanding work, and in reducing stress levels.

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source Flickr via pinkmoose

I have a problem with plants — although I would like to have one in my office — because I keep my office fairly dim, and plants need more light that I let in. The reason? Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity, as show in a recent study by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth, while turning the lights up makes people more logical, which is why I often pull up the blinds when engaged in phone calls (see Turn the light up or down to shift thinking styles). This is an argument for allowing people the ability to tweak their lighting pretty seriously, which is impossible in many offices and difficult in the rest. It seems that offices should be darker in general, and people should have controllable lighting on their desks or workspaces to amp up into logical thinking when sensible.

And the colors of our surroundings has an impact as well. It seems I should paint my office blue or green if I want to stick with the creativity side of things, since a recent study suggests that blue primes us to a more exploratory mindset, while red leads to more attention to detail. Green has been likewise linked to creativity in another study.  This is a case for companies providing a spectrum of spaces with different colors and lighting options, so that people can fine tune their surroundings to help them create or grind.

The worst version of today’s open office model — stereotypically brightly lit, with white walls, and little possibility for adjusting lighting — are absolutely the opposite of what would actually stimulate people to be more creative. Perhaps this is related to the fact that we are living in a time of great uncertainty in almost all businesses, and in times of uncertainty people have a bias against creativity and favor the traditional. Even — or especially — in the classroom, students who show the characteristics of creative people were judged least favorably by teachers, and the least creative, most favorably.

When you step back and think about, the stark, white, brightly lit open offices of today’s second way businesses are a great deal like public schools, and perhaps have included the hidden biases against creativity, as well.