The shift to remote work has made many elements of daily working life more difficult, but it may provide a hidden boost to humanity’s creative powers. As restrictions start to lessen in some places, companies are faced with a choice: continue to support full remote work, return to the office, or craft a new hybrid approach.
According to recent surveys, most workers and most CFOs want to make some measure of remote work a permanent reality. While business drivers like reduced overhead and digital transformation initiatives are certainly at play here, surveys like these and our recent global experiment in remote working also hint at the fact that our creativity actually increases when we work remotely.
Research into remote working and its impact on employee productivity is nothing new, but it rarely focuses on creativity. However, a 2012 study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, discovered some very important insights about the nature of productivity during remote work, namely: productivity depends on the nature of the work.
Remote work has a negative impact on productivity for dull tasks
Remote work has a positive impact on productivity for creative tasks
This study didn’t probe any further into why remote employees are more productive at creative tasks. But a quick look at the psychological definition of creativity gives us a clue, “the skilled application of knowledge in new and exciting ways. It requires changing up one’s normal routine, stepping outside of typical comfort zones, and paying attention to the present moment.”
Creativity requires breaking down structured information, seeing it in a new light, and discovering its connections to other ideas. The structured nature of the office experience may itself kill creativity. And it’s the very nature of remote work that supports (or forces) these creative ways of thinking.
Digital tools are fostering creativity. Not only have we been working remotely, but most, if not all, in-person connection has been restricted in most places. That means consuming, sharing, and creating video content is taking up a much larger share of peoples’ lives than it did before. In fact, it’s “changing the way we internet.” From choosing the background on your Zoom screen to posting videos with your kids on TikTok, the increased contact with creative digital tools is inspiring greater creativity.
Growing fluency with video and visual communications allows us to apply the knowledge we already have in novel formats. The breaking of our communication routines, and the last few months of relearning how to connect, digitally, is making creativity possible, but it isn’t the whole story.
Managing interruptions means building creative space-in-time
Remote work itself allows employees to maximize their creativity by managing interruptions more effectively. Interruptions, even small ones, can tank work quality and output.
The culture of interruption varies from company to company, and manager to manager. But the physical distance of remote work allows employees to simply switch off notifications, indicate do-not-disturb time on their calendars, and be able to cultivate space for creative time during their day.
Curating physical space to maximize creativity
Not only do we need space-in-time for creativity — we need space in space! The physical spaces in which we work can set a creative tone. A gray row of cubicles might help us focus on repetitive tasks, but they simply kill creativity. As the plethora of Zoom screens we’ve seen show us — we’re all working in our own space. And we have the ability to curate our space with things that inspire creativity.
For instance, surrounding yourself with personal creative totems, setting up your desk by a window to allow in some natural beauty, or build a creativity corner, with different lighting and seating away from your normal, task-driven workspace.
All this space allows us to better “fill the well”
Creativity requires thinking outside the box, and applying knowledge in new and exciting ways. So creativity depends on constantly “filling the well,” replenishing inspiration with research into colleagues, competitors, thought leaders, and experts.
But the time to read, research, find inspiration, and allow ideas to arrive, is very hard to come by in a traditional office setting. Forget about listening to music or enjoying unstructured meditation time. Employees feel the pressure of constant interruptions or needing to “look busy” in the office. But that pressure can be mitigated by working remotely.
Limitations force creativity
We’ve all heard that necessity is the mother of invention. This is simply another way to say limitations force creativity. And moving from a familiar working environment to new remote reality means comfortable avenues for solving problems and communicating with your colleagues are no longer available.
It is these very limitations that are forcing employees, managers, and executives to come up with new communication strategies, new ways of doing their work and achieving their goals, and new ways to celebrate their successes.
Creativity & The Post-Shutdown World
In a short time, the shift to remote work has opened up creative possibilities for workers in nearly every field. The freedom to leverage digital tools, to cultivate physical and temporal creative space, to research and fill the creative well, and to find those places where creative innovation is needed most (like how we communicate and stay productive in a post-Covid business reality) is only the beginning of a creative boost — and just in time.
The world is defining what our post-shutdown world will look like. There are no best practices or existing answers. Communities, institutions, and citizens alike need to take the knowledge we have, and apply it to this novel moment in history. Companies that can nurture and harness creativity at every level to build our new, better, post-pandemic world are the companies that will lead the recovery.