With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the entire world, the day-to-day fabric of our lives is altered. If you and your team are like many teams, you’ve woken up to a shorter commute, breakfast with the kids, and a ten-step commute to the office (a.k.a. the dining room/living room/office/empty desk).

Aside from the basic fact of no longer sharing physical space with your colleagues, the mental landscape of work has changed to reflect your new office setting.

For many workers, creativity is closely hinged on in-person interaction–the first thing to fall away in the pandemic. But working from home does not need to sap your creativity. Quite the opposite. Here’s why your creativity is shifting in response to working from home and what your team can do to retain the same creative spark.

The deepening digital divide

If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that the digital divide between companies is as strong as ever.

In many ways, the current work from home revolution has its roots in years of slow-growing digital transformation. The pandemic simply expedited the movement.

That means that companies are realizing that the modern digital firm needs three things to thrive:

  1. Producing more at a lower cost per unit (scale)
  2. Achieving greater production variety (scope)
  3. Pushing for greater innovation (learning)

The pandemic has forced companies to factor a virtual work environment into the equation. That requires a new element of creativity simply because most workers are not accustomed to working from home–and that need not deter overall creativity.

Creativity of random interaction

Steve Jobs, a famous opponent of remote work, once observed, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” That’s why Jobs had an atrium anchor the center of the Pixar office, containing meeting spaces, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms.

Employees at the time thought Jobs was wasting space, but random interaction has real creative power.

That’s because human interaction allows us to express our most human qualities, like collaboration and empathy, triggered by small but vital interpersonal interaction. Those skills cannot be automated, and they’re harder to manufacture with the same randomness when every digital action is deliberate.

How remote work makes us better (and worse) at some tasks

That said, remote work does make us better at certain tasks – and worse at others.

While we miss the creativity in randomness provided by an office, a controlled office setting is actually better at forcing us to do dull tasks than a less-structured environment. That’s because, in an unstructured environment, ordinary distractions seem more interesting.

Plus, when a team works from home, it’s a bit harder to deal with the free-rider effect, because, in an office, no one wants to be seen as coasting off someone else’s hard work.

That said, a 2012 study also found that teams working from home are more productive, simply because mundane office distractions have been removed.
It’s not that working from home makes us more or less creative, per se. The issue is that we think we’re going to be less effective at home, and we lack the interpersonal creative boost that would allow us to power through creative roadblocks. The net result? The feeling that your creativity is sapped by remote work.

How to stay creative at home

The key, then, is to leverage our improved productivity and replicate the creativity of random moments found in a structured office setting.

To do this, you have to create enough structure to deal with dull tasks and provide avenues to replicate at least some of the random interactions found in a traditional office setting.

Share Inspiration

One of the best ways to bolster creativity among remote teams is to share inspiration and promote interaction – overcommunicate as much as possible.

Keep in mind that innovation happens when ideas serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas. It’s a casual collision that creates momentum, even though it spins you off the track of your original idea.

To do this invest in virtual tools that allow employees to interact and share ideas.

One technique is to hop on a group video chat, even if you work silently. It takes getting used to, but the net result is almost as if you’re working side-by-side in real life. If you get stumped, you can turn to a colleague and ask a question.

Plus, just hearing someone else type next to you is a powerful productivity boost -it’s easier to fight the free-rider effect when you have a concrete reminder of other people working hard.

Create Structure

It’s also important to implement some degree of structure. Many people will resist this for creative tasks, but it helps pick up the slack on dull, mind-numbing tasks.

For example, give employees the tools to do the Pomodoro technique together. The technique is simple: choose a task you want to get done, set a timer for 25 minutes, work on it until the timer goes off, then take a five-minute break. For every four Pomodoros, you can take a 30-minute break at the end.

An easy way to create structure is to allow employees to hop on a video call together, open up a shared task, and share a 25-minute timer to power through as much as they can. Then they can share notes when they’re done and reorganize for round two.

Creativity in the face of transformation

Who says creativity is stifled by transformation? If anything, transformation is where creativity rises to the forefront. And in a time of rapid digital transformation, you need creativity more than ever.

Here’s the good news: you can promote creativity. Start by recognizing what allows creativity in a physical office and replicate those tools as much as possible in your remote work setting. And don’t forget to ask your employees for their input!

Remember, everyone is on this creative journey together, and in a difficult time like this, everyone is ready to apply creativity and adapt to new challenges. It’s time to bring your team together and get creative.