Why WFH is killing your creativity and what you can do about it

Our Senior Consultant Maddie explores why WFH can be a creativity killer and what we can do to turn it into a helpful creative constraint instead

When tentative steps back into the office were halted by a second lockdown, the usually buoyant team at The Foundation emitted some unusual grumblings. It’s not just that we’re missing our favourite coffee place round the corner from the office (though I certainly am). Nor is it the dearth of Pret sandwiches in our lives, or a longing for the familiar roar of the Central line at 7:04am. In truth, the source of these grumblings is the terrifying feeling that WFH is crushing our creativity.

Unpicking this, we realised there are three main things going on here.

Firstly, confined to the same four walls, we’re deprived of stimuli that we might usually happen upon anywhere from in a museum to on a billboard. This is a problem because serendipity matters in creativity. There are numerous examples of this, from Velcro - a result of engineer George de Mestral wondering why burdock seeds clung to his dog’s coat during a walk - to the Slinky, a toy created by naval engineer Richard James after he dropped a spring and observed it “walk”. Serendipity, by its very nature, is hard to harness at the best of times, but surely more so when we’re seeing and experiencing less variety in our day-to-day lives.

Secondly, give us a good old fashioned post-it note and Sharpie and the ideas just flow, but sitting in front of a screen has us suffering what can only be described as creative constipation. With a pen, we don’t just write – we draw, make connections, visualise ideas and scribble diagrams. The ‘back of the napkin’ idea exemplifies the power of the pen, with the likes of Southwest Airlines, the MRI scanner and a flurry of Disney films being said to have hailed from scrappy jottings. While we’re being forced to collaborate online, shackled to our screens and keyboards, the trusty pen we once relied on is languishing untouched.

The final nail in the coffin for creativity at home is the solitude of not having a team around you. Ernest Hemingway claimed that ideas only come “when there is no one to disturb you” and would clearly be a proponent of working from home. But when generating ideas, multiplying the diversity of perspectives, knowledge and experience at the table increases the possibilities uncovered. Hence why throughout history we see examples of collectives coming together to surface compelling ideas – from the coffeehouses of London fuelling Enlightenment thinking to the Florentine Camerata, a gathering of musicians that led to the creation of opera. And while it’s easy enough to get people together on Zoom, stimulating a team to be creative together is proving much harder to do digitally than it is in person.

It’d be easy (and reasonable in a year as rough as 2020) to feel defeated by this triple whammy of creative constraints. But we’d be missing a trick when it’s been shown time and again that radical innovation comes from exactly these kinds of tricky situations. The much-lauded statue of David was the result of Michelangelo being handed another sculptor’s unfinished work, along with a list of exacting stipulations about how it should look and when it must be completed. These kinds of limitations make people more rather than less creative; without them we risk the creative equivalent of writer’s block, and with them we’re forced to explore new ideas and use resources in different ways. With this in mind, our team has set about turning the constraints of WFH to our creative advantage:

  • Uncovering serendipity closer to home To the team’s dismay, our Partner Anna has started refusing Zoom calls. She’s choosing instead to have an old fashioned phone call while wandering the streets of Richmond, getting lost and happening upon scenes from which she draws ideas – like seeing an old and young person together on a bench, which inspired a new research methodology for a current project.

  • Flexing creativity in side projects Our Partner Charlie has seriously upped his game in the kitchen. Among our senior consultants Bianca has taken up rollerskating, Claudia has been sculpting pots and Graham has been doing puzzles. This kind of multitasking is a hallmark of the most creative people, stimulating mental connections across different contexts. Einstein is a case in point, publishing four remarkable but very different papers in just 1905. Nobel Prize coming our way shortly, then?

  • Going back to the old school Knowing that there’s nothing quite like a pen and paper when it comes to creative companions, we’re going back to the old school by sending clients notebooks to keep all of their project-related ideas and thinking in.

  • Expanding circles digitally WFH might feel lonely, but it’s actually easier than ever to connect with new people. Our office manager Katharyn has been attending Tortoise Think-ins, and analyst Holly and I are Zoom mentoring a group of students based in London, Indonesia and Kazakhstan. There really is no time like the present to expand your circle and enjoy the fruits of hearing those ideas and perspectives that you’d otherwise never have come across.

  • Creating routine In the same way as creativity needs constraints, introducing structure to your day can do wonders for managing creative (and general) energy. Our Partner Charlie hops on his bike to pick up a newspaper every morning – and reaps the rewards of fresh air and the news he’s consumed for the rest of the day.

  • Naturally lateral thinking Where in the past we’ve relied on adverts, shops, museums and the like to trigger lateral thinking, we’re getting outdoors and borrowing ideas from nature instead. Unlikely though it may seem, a community garden and a flock of parakeets flying down Uxbridge Road have both inspired ideas for a project about a company’s purpose and culture.

So with lockdown 2.0 over, we’re feeling optimistic for more than one reason. Yes, many of us will gingerly return to the pub, the good coffee place, even the Pret sandwich if we so desire. But with WFH continuing for the foreseeable, we’re feeling creatively poised to tackle – nay, make the most of its constraints. Michelangelo, watch out.

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