You might have heard the buzzwords remote-first, hybrid-only, and digital by design. These terms were borne out of the fact that the open-office experiment—with all its distractions—has failed. And companies are rushing for the exit as fast as they can. But it turns out that this began to unfold pre-pandemic; COVID-19 just accelerated the trend. Remote work is now here, broadly accessible, and will be a part of most office workers’ lives for the foreseeable future.
Deciding just how remote, however, is already causing some controversy. Sales and marketing teams are counting the days until they can start booking meetings (and plane tickets) again; engineers, designers, writers, and countless other creative types are suffering from reentry anxiety. I can relate. This last year was a gift to creatives. We finally got a taste of quiet, solitary, disciplined work. And we’re not giving it back.
The birth of the modern office: The creativity killer
When we examine our current concept of the office culture, it seems as if it was explicitly designed to stifle independent, creative work—and it’s only gotten worse.
In the last two decades, private offices were replaced with open pens, pressuring people to appear to be working along with finishing up and meeting their actual work demands. Fishbowl-like conference rooms surrounded by windows sprung up. And if you dared to seek some alone time within one of these areas, any passers-by would gawk and question whether you were working or slacking off. Before an idea even left a notebook, it was project-managed into countless redundant meetings and virtual-assignment cards. Even whiteboards were replaced with glass, seeming to ask, “Who doesn’t want an immediate audience for their bad ideas?”
Transparency is all well and good, but anyone who has actually produced good creative work knows it involves countless personal, private failures. It doesn’t come on a schedule. The ideas can come when you wake up, shower, or take a walk (as an example, I can’t think of a single good idea I’ve had that’s originated at the office).
It comes when the time is right, when our brains actually have the opportunity to focus. An eight-hour, linear work day surrounded by people in the same space, trying to accomplish the same thing, runs antithetical to the entire spirit of creativity.
It’s enough to leave you amazed that any great media, art, or advertising came out in the past 20 years.
The novel pandemic: A taste of what work and life could be like
For many creatives, especially those who need specialized tools like Avid, development kits, or $30,000 Mac Pros, the pandemic was the first taste of an alternative to office chaos. We were no longer waiting for everyone to go home so we could actually get some work done, or caught waiting for a project to get passed to us for input. We were able to work when inspiration actually struck, away from distractions and prying eyes, rather than wasting time trying to appear productive. It’s a small, positive outcome in an otherwise tragic situation. Creativity was allowed to be the solitary state of being it always was.
Plus, it turns out that this solitary period didn’t lead to thousands of time-wasting, suddenly lazy workers. GitLab recently found that remote work led to an estimated $18,000 in cost savings per worker due to increased productivity and better employee retention. And Harvard Business Review found a 4.4% increase in productivity per person each and every day.
Obviously it isn’t all roses; those of us with children or pets may have found whole new distractions. And frankly, brainstorming through Zoom sucks. Of course real, human connection has its own kind of tangible impact on our ideas and perspectives.
But, as every company on Earth negotiates what it will do with its offices, and how it expects people to work going forward, we have to make sure we cling to our newfound creative time. There’s no doubt that some companies want everybody, even their creatives, back in the fishbowls, at least some of the time. They still won’t be convinced you work better alone, or that your ideal workday is actually made up of odd stretches from 8 to 10 a.m., 1 to 5 p.m., and 8 to 11 p.m.
If you’re worried you’ll be forced back to the office, here are some tips to make sure the office doesn’t kill your creativity again.
- Figure out your schedule, and communicate it. We’re in the earliest days of hybrid work, and firms have no idea what an ideal in-office and WFH balance looks like. If you’ve found a pattern that works for you, write it down and share it, broadly. You may be surprised to find others with similar days, and even more surprised when you get the schedule you want.
- Use the office for what it’s good for. Abandon the expectation that your best creative work will get done at the office. Rather, pack your in-office days with the one-on-ones, catch-ups, brainstorms, and alignment meetings that are better in person. Come home with your projects managed so you can focus on getting the real work done elsewhere.
- Do the same with home. Protect your time dedicated to creative work. Turn off Zoom and irrelevant communication and productivity apps, and enjoy the focus on actually bringing ideas to life.
- Get great tools. Remote work is great for creativity, but can be terrible for productivity across an org, with quick collaborative design work or project sharing made significantly more difficult from afar. Tools like Frame.io and Figma remove these hurdles so there are fewer reasons why you need to work from an office.
- Make like a tree. More and more companies are recognizing the positives of letting people intermingle work and home. In fact, 41% of people recently said they’d rather take a pay cut than work in an office full time. And they’ve heard from countless consultants that remote’s a reality. If you’re a good creative, you’re needed somewhere that will let you work how you want.
We can never get the creative time we lost from the past few decades of in-person work. But we sure don’t have to go back.
Benjy Boxer is cofounder of a remote-access company for gaming and other creative work, Parsec.