Does working remotely help or hurt the creative work?

Joonas Virtanen
Oct 5, 2015 · 5 min read

Remote seems to be the future of work. But how does this trend affect creative teams? Many creative workers are already working from home or even from various exotic locations as ‘Digital Nomads’. But is it possible to effectively lead creative teams remotely? And does remote work, instead of boosting creativity, actually sap you from it, due to lack of imminent social relationships and serendipitous interactions?

The rise of remote work

According to research, by 2016 about 43 percent of the U.S. workforce (63 million people) will telecommute. That figure is up from 34 million in 2009. That is close to doubling the number of telecommuters in seven years, and the growth in telecommuting is not going to stop there.

Additionally, this change in habits is not only led by employees’ reluctance to commute and work from the office: A survey showed that almost 70% of companies opined that offering their employees a flexible environment led to higher revenues, and thus there is an incentive from the companies’ side to increasingly advocate for remote work because of productivity gains.

“almost 70% of companies opined that offering their employees a flexible environment led to higher revenues”

With many of today’s workers needing little more than a MacBook, reliable Wi-Fi and Skype / Slack / Office365 to carry out their daily tasks, there is an ever-increasing trend for working not merely from home, but from locations far more exotic than your average office — known as the ‘digital nomad’ movement. However, is this Digital Nomadism merely for the employees and freelancers tackling the production work? How does the creative process get affected when working remotely? Before diving into those questions, let’s take a closer look at the remote work landscape in general.

“50% of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework and approximately 20–25% of the workforce teleworks at some frequency”

The profile of an average remote worker, and does working remotely affect productivity and happiness?

We all have our stereotype of an average remote worker/telecommuter: It’s this 20-something working from home, or maybe from a nice, cozy coffee shop in his/her hometown or perhaps even in the other side of the world.

Well, that’s not the reality. Actually, the typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old college graduate — man or woman — who earns about $58,000 a year and belongs to a company with more than 100 employees.

As we see, remote work in general has many undeniable upsides when done right. It is a growing trend and it is definitely here to stay. But what about remote design? Does working remotely function well for creative work and creative teams?

Remote work and creativity

The research on remote work on creative teams and creative professions is quite scarce. However, a few very interesting studies exist: A study by economist E. Glenn Dutcher tested whether remote work productivity gains vary depending on the person and the nature of the task. The setup of the study was as follows:

Researchers assigned two tasks to 125 participants. The first was rote and repetitive; the other involved coming up with as many unusual uses for ordinary objects as possible, a test often used by psychologists to measure creativity. About half the participants did the tasks in a supervised lab, the other half remotely.

The foundings of the report indicate that the wealth of more alluring distractions at home or in coffee shops can make it harder to get routine (read: mind-numbing) tasks done. However, the foundings back up the argument that creative work can be done, and in fact, is more effectively done, remotely:

There are times when the home — or the coffee shop or the library — is a much better place to work than the office. For certain types of creative work, you have to be in your favorite room, or listening to your favorite music, or sitting in your favorite chair with your cat on your lap. No other environment will do.

- E. Glenn Dutcher

Sounds promising for creative remote workers, right? However this year, Mural.ly asked what creative teams have to say about their experiences working remotely. They polled a few hundred designers, and their experiences tell a slightly different story:

According the study, far the biggest hurdles for creative remote work were the following: Communication suffers significantly, spontaneity is often lost, and lack of interpersonal relationships makes the work less stimulating. Are these something that can be fixed with the right attitude, right leadership and right tools?

What the future holds for remote creative work

Most remote creative organizations have already embraced great existing services like Slack, Skype, Hangout and Mural.ly. These tools have truly empowered creative teams to be much more effective in their remote tasks than ever before. But what will the remote working environment include in two or five years? Oculus has already presented their consumer product and Microsoft will also unveil the Hololens very soon.

Thanks to the evolution of VR devices, we are soon exploring the frontier of ‘heightened realities’ in the realm of professional collaboration. I dare to say that in the near future, tools like this are bound to completely revolutionize how design work and creative collaboration is done.

Do you think creative work is better done from the office or on the road? Or is there maybe a happy medium to be found? I’d love to hear your positive experiences and/or horror stories on remote creative projects!

Joonas Virtanen

Written by

Experience Designer, Creative Director, Entrepreneur, proud nerd. www.purpose.com / www.joonasvirtanen.com

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