Is Remote Work Destroying Your Creativity?

Some say remote work can fuel creativity. Others contradict it. What’s the truth? Read more to find out.

Last year, the pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. Almost overnight, lockdowns were announced and our routines and behaviors were disrupted and changed in ways we had never imagined. Groceries and essentials began to be ordered online, students went online for classes, and work from home became a necessity.

In the U.S., a remarkable 42% of the workforce were working remotely in June 2020, up from about 3.4% pre-COVID. But the abrupt shift to a work from home culture was no smooth sail. Employees struggled with low or fluctuating Internet speeds and limited resources, and distractions at home were hard to keep at bay. Some contended that this resulted in a decline in productivity, while others continued to argue that remote work can increase productivity.

But as the pandemic rages on, and most companies are looking at allowing permanent remote work or hybrid schedule, it is important to analyze its impact on creativity. Firstly, let’s examine the evidence that suggests remote work can actually help increase creativity.

Can remote work make you more creative?

According to a 2012 study by E. Glenn Dutcher, which was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, productivity during remote work varies with the nature of work. The study assigned two tasks to 125 participants – a dull and repetitive task, and one that asked them to come up with as many unusual uses of ordinary objects as possible. Half of the participants performed the tasks in a laboratory while the other half performed it remotely.

The study found that the participants who worked remotely were six to 10 percent less productive for the repetitive task, but were 11 to 20% more productive in the creative task. This means that productivity for menial tasks may go down while working from home. But, remote work can actually boost productivity when performing creative tasks.

This seems logical since office environments are structured. And in the absence of the structured environment, it is more tempting to watch TV or entertain other distractions when faced with boring tasks, leading to a decline in productivity. But the same is not true for creative tasks.

Dutcher argued, “For certain types of creative work, you have to be in your favorite room, or listening to your favorite music, or sitting in your favorite chair with your cat on your lap. No other environment will do.”

Another 2017 study showed that structure stifles creativity. However, this is far from true for every person, or every kind of job description.

How is remote work muffling your creativity?

The Chief Economist at the Bank of England Andy Haldane spoke about the impact of remote work on creativity and workplace relationships last year.

He said, “…exposure to new and different experiences – sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people – is a key source of creative spark. These external stimuli are fuel for our imaginations and the imagined, made real, is what we typically mean by creativity.”

Global brand expert Martin Lindstrom expressed a similar opinion recently. According to him, remote work has created a linear work environment which thwarts creativity.

The lack of serendipitous interactions with colleagues in the hallway, near the water-cooler, or between meetings, are lamentable losses, both Lindstorm and Haldane said.

According to science author Steven Johnson, innovation can thrive when “ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas.” This means that the casual interactions we never attached any serious importance to actually played a crucial role in stimulating creativity. This is why Google offices were designed to wander and linger, and their free lunch programs were meant to create casual and serendipitous interactions.

Lindstorm simplified the concept. He said, “Creative teams very rarely generate ideas on their own. They bounce ideas off others because the other person will see the world from another point of view.” Video conferences, therefore, are a poor substitute for in-person interaction.

Besides, when working from home, it is easy to slip into a sedentary lifestyle with no exercise. While at office, although you may spend the majority of time sitting in your chair, the commute to office or a walk around the building during your breaks can likely fuel creativity.

There are studies that suggest physical exercise, even walking, can increase creativity. This is because these small breaks can help your mind tackle problems in new ways.

Moreover, the absence of noise and distractions is an important factor that fosters creativity and innovation. And although for some people their home might be the quieter less-distracting workspace that helps channel their creativity, it does not hold true for everyone.

For fresh graduates who still live in shared accomodations, people with large families that have confined workspaces, noisy children or relatives, home is far from the ideal working environment. If you are trying to work in a make-shift office space with an uncomfortable chair, your creativity is bound to be impacted.

Most importantly, working from home can often lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. The small interactions while walking to the lift or while sharing lunch do more than we realize for our mental health. And a deterioration of mental health unmistakably means a decline in creativity.

Ultimately, remote work affects everyone and their creative abilities differently. But if you seem to lack inspiration or notice your creativity lagging, there are several small steps you can take to remedy the situation: Taking regular breaks, ensuring work-life balance, a suitable and comfortable workspace, and incorporating exercise like walking or yoga into your routine can help channel your creativity while working from home.

Header Image by Jason Strull on Unsplash

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