The Value of Right-Brain Use in a Left-Brain World

Phil Schwarzmann

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Artist Gregory Burns worries that too many people in the corporate world are only using half of their brains. They are really working that left half hard, though.

That’s the analytical side of the brain, the logical side concerned with reason, math and facts. It’s doing a lot of important work in a high-tech haven like Silicon Valley, where Equinix is headquartered, but it rarely picks up a paintbrush. That’s right-brain territory.

But Burns, who’s spent the last several months as Equinix’s artist-in-residence, believes companies can see big benefits from getting their employees to do more right-brain thinking. Not only can it bring better balance to their lives, but it can bring a creativity to work that sparks innovation and enhances problem-solving.

Several paintings on display around Equinix headquarters, done by Equinix employees under Burns’ direction, are can’t-miss evidence of the work Burns has done to get employees to avoid left brain overuse. The artwork is good, Burns said, (“Some of these are works of art I would hang in my house”) and Burns believes the Equinix artists and the company are enjoying other benefits.

“The bottom line is to help people reengage with the right side of their brain, to bring that creative spirit back into the workplace, and to look at things differently,” he said.

A Better We_60x72in_Mixed Media on Canvas_2016

Bringing Back the Artist

Burns is a lifelong artist and has created workshops that help corporate employees better connect with themselves and their company’s values through art.

He got involved with Equinix after meeting with our chief evangelist Pete Ferris, who has started programs such as Equinix’s outdoor retreat, the “Walk in the Woods,” which aims to help employees achieve a better life-work balance. The two agreed Burns’ program could work well at Equinix.

Burns has held eight voluntary workshops for Equinix and the number of participants has ranged from eight to 80.

Burns starts off by trying to re-awakening the artist inside people. That’s the part of you who picked up a paintbrush or crayon as a kid, but hasn’t worked with anything more colorful than the black or blue ink of a pen since.

“We were once all artists, but somewhere along the line, it short-circuited,” he said. “We started losing that confidence and joie de vivre about making things. But we can re-engage people with that part of themselves.”

As part of the exercise, participants talk about who they are and what it is about working for Equinix that excites them. They then break up into groups and work on ways to express an Equinix value that’s the focus of the particular artwork they are creating that session, for example: “We Before Me,” or “Keep Your Promises.” They do it by painting, creating collages, whatever inspires them. Then, Burns helps them bring it all together onto a single canvas. Burns said the important thing is that they let loose, experiment and see where it takes them.

“We’re giving people permission to run and jump off a cliff,” he said. “You take a chance, you build on things, you layer on things, and if it doesn’t work out, you start over. That’s part of life, that’s part of learning.”

Thinking Differently

When it’s over and they’ve created a real piece of art that’s on display on Equinix walls, participants can see the merits of letting their creativity loose on a problem, Burns said. It shows them it might be worth taking a few right-brain-oriented tools back to the workplace.

Jeannette Bartolome, the Americas benefits program manager at Equinix, agreed that she left the workshop she attended earlier this year with a new openness to doing things in new ways.

Bartolome wasn’t sure what the workshop was about when her boss encouraged her to attend. She’s said she’s not “a very touchy-feely person,” so she had some skepticism about what was ahead. But as she worked with her group on how to fill up the blank canvas, she began to loosen up and have fun working with people she wouldn’t have met otherwise. She began assembling pictures that represented teamwork, one of the Equinix values she prizes, and found herself breaking away from her normal decision-making pattern.

“You just did anything you were thinking of in that moment,” she said. “It’s freeing.”

Bartolome said perhaps her biggest takeaway was new links to people in the company she really enjoyed getting to know, and a bigger sense of the number of people at Equinix who were all working toward the same goals.

“It gave me a greater sense of teamwork,” she said, “and just a sense of the potential power of this company.”

Watch this video about Burns’ work at Equinix.