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For creativity to flourish, it’s not about coercion—it’s about creating environments where it's likely to happen. 
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Most companies value creativity, seeing it as a way to generate ideas and solve complex business problems. But the who, what, and how remain mysterious.   

  

How do we foster creativity? And how do we do it in an increasingly isolated and remote environment?  

  

To be Human is to be Creative  

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and the same is true for creativity. For just as consciousness defines the human species, so does our instinct to create.  

  

“[C]reativity isn’t necessarily about art, per se, but is a quality of being artful,” reflects Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., professor of sociology. “It’s about how we make and weave meaning and richness into our days.”  

  

Cohan explains that creativity is born from curiosity, which often involves experimentation and playing in the unknown. Those who play in the unknown are rewarded tenfold—for not only does creativity reward people: It rewards businesses.  

 

Creativity in Business  

  

In 2020, the World Economic Forum listed 10 skills people need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Creativity was ranked #3.  

  

“Creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need,” the report stated. “With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.”  

  

This comes as no surprise to leaders who push for creativity in the workplace. They understand that without creativity, there is no advancement.  

  

As problems get more complex, there are fewer examples of how to solve them,” says Matt Adams, former director of global design company IDEO. He believes that applying old thinking to new problems is not only stale—it’s deficient.   

  

“Instead of looking at what is or what has been,” stresses Adams, “we need to start looking to what can be.”  

 

In Search of the Creative Elixir   

  

Executives tout the importance of creativity but are less versed in its everyday application. They question what circumstances are required to foster creative thinking.   

  

When are people most creative? Where are people most creative?  How do companies encourage employees—especially those closer to Zoom than offices—to think creatively?  

  

IDEO director Neil Stevenson sees this as a huge challenge.   

  

 “Everybody’s talking about [creativity] and saying they want it, and yet it seems to be poorly understood,” Stevenson observes. “When people try to define it, they really struggle; it actually turns out to be a whole bundle of different processes under one banner. It’s one of those things where there’s a gap between the desire for creativity and the understanding of it, which is an interesting opportunity.”  

 

The Enduring Need for (Creative) Connection  

  

With the pandemic came a host of revolutionary changes in the workforce. Companies discovered productivity didn’t depend on office space, and employees discovered (and fought for) their right to work from home (WFH).  

  

Studies validate remote productivity, including research conducted at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Most experts agree WFH flexibility can be beneficial (sometimes better, depending on the sector) for employees and the labor market. But with increased independence comes increased isolation.  

  

In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory titled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” It cites the pandemic and remote work for heightening isolation, which impacts employee mental health and their ability to function.   

  

What’s interesting are the consequences: They’re not immediate and acute, but rather subtle and over a long period of time. Experts watching these trends aren’t shy about their advice: Forego offices and you might incur irreparable damage.  

  

 

Privacy and Serendipity 

 

Despite these growing concerns, there are those who see a rise—not a decline—in creative production.  

  

 “[We’re witnessing] a nascent return to businesses using humour, imagination and artistic flair to move audiences and express truth,” writes Sir John Hagerty, creative mogul and co-founder of the global agency BBH. Hegarty’s agency promotes a creative office atmosphere, where positive and passionate people come out to play.  

 

In fact, many global companies and agencies (including our own) are starting to develop a defined office-remote ratio. There’s something about privacy and serendipity (a Hegarty term) that ignites creativity:  

  • Privacy to remove distractions and allow for focus time and playful free association; 
  • Serendipity to drive collaboration and amplify creative seeds.  

 

The result? Happy, productive people who develop smart, creative solutions. 

 

Hybridity for the Future 

 

While there are no perfect solutions (if anyone claims perfection, we have questions!), Digital United, representing Primacy, Mediate.ly, and ZenSource, embraces a flexible approach to hybrid work. We recognize the importance of adapting to individual and organizational needs, aligning with the evolving nature of work and accommodating the diverse preferences of our team members.  

 

In a 2022 field experiment,  Harvard professor Raj Choudhury identified an ideal 40/60 ratio for hybrid work---40% of the time in office and 60% remote Choudhury’s field study supplied causal evidence that workers who spent around two days in the office each week reported greater work-life balance, more job satisfaction, and lower isolation from colleagues (compared to workers who spent fewer days in the office).  

 

[C]ommunication, creativity, and job satisfaction were optimized when employees came into the office a few days a week,” the research concluded.  

 

Understandably, hybridity is feasible for some companies and impossible for others. Office overhead and work-from-anywhere (WFA) employees, for example, introduce complexity to the 40:60 gold standard. But in the face of limitations, it’s wise to explore creative solutions. 

 

  1. Accept what is. Instead of bemoaning the new workforce era, look for chances to foster privacy and serendipity—virtually and in person. 
  2. Ditch the cubicles. If you haven’t already, redesign your office to be an open office. Reserve space for privacy (like small rooms or phone booths) and space for serendipity (like the kitchen, coffeemaker, and whiteboards in common spaces). If you don’t have office space, plenty of co-working spaces offer this format. 
  3. Don’t expect uniformity. Increased flexibility adds increased unpredictability. Rather than forcing people to abide by a strict office/remote schedule, let the group decide the schedule (and maybe on a weekly basis).  
  4. Encourage regional activity. For WFA employees, it’s beneficial to have regional “buddies” (even if they have totally different jobs). Encourage employees from the same region to get together whenever possible. 
  5. Make it count. When you are in person, make the most of it! You may discover office time is bi-weekly or global colleagues congregate quarterly—so pile on the in-person collaborations, lunches, and ideation sessions for those days. 

 

Remember that creativity isn’t forced, but flourishes in nurturing (and hopefully hybrid) environments. 

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