Forget Productivity, We Need To Talk About The WFH Creativity Crisis

Benjamin Crudo
Mar 9 · 4 min read

The blinking cursor stares you down from the monitor. Your goal to make headway by afternoon 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 work-from-home 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. And that 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 an unconscious process. While waiting for my coffee I’d overhear the barista gush about a new podcast, I’d pass fresh graffiti enroute to the office, then I’d run into a colleague and we’d talk shop before parting ways. Pebbles everywhere; and every so often one would come in handy.

We tend to think of creativity as the purview of painters and poets, but it’s vitally important for knowledge workers like me. 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. And that inspiration gap, in turn, hurts our businesses. 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 processes. Without external motivators, 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.

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 vs. right brain issue — creativity is a whole brain function.

The key to unlock your Renaissance mindset comes 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, 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 his 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, enable your employees’ creativity (instead of inhibiting it)

An employer’s role is not so much kindling creativity but making sure not to extinguish it in your team. In large part, this comes down 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 and offering encouragement. Just as important: Ensure teams have the resources they need to innovate. Time and money constraints can kill creativity.

Finally, you want to get out of the way. Give your employees the freedom to get ’er 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.

Use physical (and mental) fitness to unlock inspiration

I may not leave my house anymore, but I’ve been pushing myself up mountains. From biking up the (virtual) Alps, to at-home-pilates, to besting my push-up record, I’ve never been in better shape. But it’s about more than just blasting my abs. A physical workout clears the mind, and makes 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 allow 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 shower, a run, or a 20-minute meditation session. Inspiration often strikes when you least expect it.

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

A version of this post was originally featured in Business Insider. Stay up to date with my latest by following me here and on Twitter.

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Benjamin Crudo

Written by

CEO of @DiffAgency. Retailer turned Technologist. #Ecommerce Expert. Helping retailers win today and tomorrow. Developers wanted.

The Helm

Business leadership advice, from real business leaders. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.