Creativity is the WFH casualty no one is talking about. Here’s how to stay inspired while working remotely.

Business Insider
Feb 13 · 5 min read

CEO and ecommerce expert Ben Crudo says bosses can boost their employees’ creativity by starting conversations and avoiding micromanaging.

An individual talking on a cell phone.
An individual talking on a cell phone.
Bosses should avoid micromanaging remote workers to boost creativity. Photo: Manish Rajput/SOPA Images

By Ben Crudo

You know the feeling. It’s already afternoon and your goal to make headway on your work to-do list is slipping out of reach. In the office, you could be inspired by chatting with a colleague or charting things out on the conference room whiteboard. But now it’s just you, facing a creativity desert.

We hear a lot about the challenges of sustaining productivity in the WFH context. But the deeper, underlying issue has gone unaddressed: You can’t have productivity without creativity.

Without access to the activities and people we’ve traditionally sought inspiration from — whether colleagues or concerts, travel or theatre, dance or Degas — our creative wells are drying up, which has enormous consequences in the workplace.

Why creativity is another WFH casualty

In the before-times, our odds of encountering a new idea were far greater. When our worlds extended beyond the four walls of our homes, picking up pebbles of inspiration was a natural, almost unconscious process. While waiting for my coffee I’d overhear the barista gush about a new podcast, I’d pass fresh graffiti en route to the office, then I’d run into a colleague and we’d talk shop before parting ways at the boardroom. Pebbles everywhere; and every so often one would come in handy.

Our pandemic-forced isolation severely limits that organic process of finding inspiration. One in four remote managers surveyed said that their teams’ creativity has suffered since working from home. That inspiration gap, in turn, hurts our businesses, as studies show that creative leaders outperform their peers on key financial metrics like organic revenue growth.

Pre-COVID, extrinsic motivators like praise, shame, or exclusion played a bigger role in our decision-making and creative process. Now, we now need to turn inwards for inspiration. The good news: Intrinsic motivators like interest, enjoyment, and a good challenge are a treasure-trove for creativity. Here’s how to get those juices flowing.

Read more: How Jeff Bezos’ leadership style propelled him to become the richest man in the world, and what you can learn from it

Tap into your Renaissance mindset

You’ve heard the expression Renaissance man (or woman). It harkens back to great thinkers like Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo who saw no boundary between art, science and life. Rather than specialize, they did it all.

Busting up the creativity log jam comes down to that Renaissance spirit. We think creatively when our imaginative and rational brain networks fire on all cylinders to make new neural connections. This isn’t a left brain versus right brain issue — creativity is a whole brain function.

The key to unlock your Renaissance mindset will come from sampling ideas outside of your specialties. Start with scheduling unstructured conversation with colleagues and clients. Then notch it up by deliberately seeking out the unusual: learn to carve wood, watch a foreign documentary, or seek out books from an author you’ve never read before. To quote poet David Whyte, “Just beyond yourself. It’s where you need to be.”

Case in point, I’ve been starting team meetings with poems lately. With just a few short verses, poems can make space for thoughtful discussion in an otherwise banal day.

The goal here isn’t strictly acquiring new thoughts or skills; it’s to break the flow of your workday thinking and spark something new.

For bosses, find ways to enable your employees’ creativity

An employer’s role is not so much kindling creativity but making sure not to inhibit it on your team. This comes down in large part to how you’re assigning projects.

The best projects challenge without overwhelming employees. A well-designed task should build on and extend existing abilities, sparking intrinsic motivation.

Next, you want team members to know they have your support. That starts with setting clearly defined goals, offering encouragement, and ensuring teams have the resources they need to innovate. Time and money constraints can kill creativity.

Finally, know when to get out of the way. Give your employees the freedom to get it done. Nothing crushes creativity and initiative faster than micromanagement.

Ultimately, the license to create comes from the top. Focus on building an environment that nurtures intrinsic motivation, and you’ll provide the foundation for your team — and business — to thrive.

Read more: Salesforce’s AI ethics chief shares 3 ways to use tech when planning a safe return to the office

Use physical and mental fitness to unlock inspiration

I may not leave my house anymore, but I’ve been pushing myself to bike up the (virtual) Alps, do at-home-pilates, and beat my push-up record. But it’s about more than just getting healthy: a physical workout clears the mind, and opens up the space for creativity to enter.

Mental fitness is just as important. Meditation may sound hokey to some, but it can be a powerful tool to make space for new ideas and connections. Talking to a therapist or even a close friend about what you’re experiencing day-to-day can also help in gaining new perspectives.

And it’s important to remember to just let go. Without clear, physical boundaries between work and home, remote workers say unplugging after work is their greatest challenge. Encourage your colleagues to escape their home offices whether it’s for a workout, a 20-minute meditation session, or even just a walk around the block. Inspiration often strikes when you least expect it.

The crisis has proven how a company’s ability to adapt and innovate can predict its success — and survival. It’s time we stop treating creativity like an afterthought and get disciplined about cultivating it instead. The future of business depends on it.

Ben Crudo is CEO of Diff Agency. A retailer turned technologist, Crudo is an ecommerce expert helping retailers win today and tomorrow.

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