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Where’s the spark? How lockdown caused a creativity crisis

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Doomed. That was the prevailing mood at Color, a 50-person creative agency, when the pandemic shut their offices in Seattle and Los Angeles. “Among the many business fears that Covid brought on,” says Elie Goral, executive creative director, “the concept of needing to isolate our creative energy was one of the scariest. Creative ideation is that frenetic spark that happens when a group of people are together, face-to-face, beers in hand, pacing back and forth against a messy whiteboard.”

A “close-knit culture” had traditionally helped his colleagues to share abstract ideas and feedback. He worried about the impact of remote working “without the ability to casually socialise in the spaces around our offices specifically designed for impromptu conversation”.

Coronavirus forced organisations to innovate, from French luxury group LVMH redeploying production lines to make hand sanitiser, to musicians performing to online audiences and restaurants becoming grocery stores.

Yet with much of Europe and North America now facing new lockdowns, there are growing fears that months of virtual work are taking their toll on creativity.

Nicholas Bloom, economics professor at Stanford University, says that among the chief executives who have approached him to discuss his research on homeworking and productivity, “creativity is the biggest single issue”. He adds: “New ideas and new customers and new segments and new business models [is] all the CEOs are concerned about” in the long term.

Elie Goral worried about the absence of the ability to ‘casually socialise in the spaces around our offices specifically designed for impromptu conversation’
Elie Goral worried about the absence of the ability to socialise in the spaces around our offices ‘specifically designed for impromptu conversation’

He says the creative process is that frenetic spark that happens when a group of people are face-to-face, ‘pacing back and forth against a messy whiteboard’
He says people are more creative when they are face-to-face, ‘pacing back and forth against a messy whiteboard’ © Cavan Images/Alamy

A recent survey of 145,000 workers worldwide by Leesman, which measures employee experience, found that 28 per cent of homeworkers said they were unable to collaborate on creative work while at home. And with the office likely to be only an occasional hub of activity rather than a full-time location for the foreseeable future, managers face a growing problem.

These worries were articulated by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, in a speech last year. “Exposure to new and different experiences — sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people — is a key source of creative spark,” he said. “These external stimuli are fuel for our imaginations and the imagined, made real, is what we typically mean by creativity.”

“Homeworking can starve us of many of these creative raw ingredients — the chance conversation, the new person or idea or environment. Homeworking means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom.”

Andy Haldane: ‘Exposure to new and different experiences — sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people — is a key source of creative spark’
Andy Haldane: ‘Exposure to new and different experiences — sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people — is a key source of creative spark’ © Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Missing ingredients

Creativity, according to some researchers, is best seen as a continuum — from problem-solving consultants to grand projects by artists and musicians. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, defines creativity as the “production of ideas that are not only novel — different from previous ideas in some way — but also appropriate: useful, valuable, correct. In physics, an idea cannot be considered creative unless it works. But in other domains — the arts, for example — appropriateness is quite a different thing.”

Creativity is important not just to a company’s bottom line but also to workers. As machines take over repetitive tasks, it is the very human capacity for creativity that will be in demand in the future.

Aspects of work such as medical development and scientific research provide relatively clear benchmarks to measuring creativity.

Employees play table-football during their lunch break at the Amazon.com office campus in Hyderabad, India, in September 2019
Employees play table football during their lunch break at the Amazon office campus in Hyderabad, India © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

“Some researchers have used the number and impact of patents” to compare levels of creativity says Glenn Dutcher, assistant professor of economics at Ohio University. “In the research world, researchers have used the number, and impact of, research articles.”


28%


Of homeworkers in a Leesman survey said they cannot collaborate on creative work

Workplace creativity, however, is harder to measure. Stephen Garrett, founder of Character 7, an independent UK production company that recently worked on HBO’s The Undoing, sums up one of the challenges of measuring creativity under a pandemic. “I don’t look back on the past year and think the collaborations I’ve been involved in are any less creative than before. But I don’t know what I’ve missed.”

The switch from office to home has made it harder to hold creative discussions at a distance, says Chris Hirst, global chief executive of French advertising and communications group Havas Creative. “Problem-solving requires an element of friction, it requires disagreements without falling out. Much of how we deal with a conflict with somebody is about how they say things, their body language. We are able to moderate our words through a combination of our actions and our words. That doesn’t happen on the screen.”

Some technological tools can interfere with brainstorming. Abigail Sellen, deputy lab director at Microsoft Research Cambridge UK, says remote technologies can make us think about the tools we are using rather than the ideas we are generating. “As soon as the tools become the focus of the interaction, then the energy [can be spent] figuring out how best to express ourselves, and making sure others can see what we are doing. The cognitive effort then is exerted in the wrong place, and interaction becomes stilted and cumbersome.”

Domestic diversions

Workers also dealing with home-schooling will be only too aware of the impact of disruptions on their concentration. Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark, describes children as “creativity’s terrorists”. One glimmer of hope he suggests to parents is that grappling with topics that are outside their routine work might inspire new ideas.

Organisations and workers have found positives in the working-from-home experience. One study by Stanford University found that walking enhances creativity. “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the work day,” the paper said, “it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.” Melanie Collins, chief people officer at cloud storage and collaborative platform Dropbox, says the experience has reinforced the value of homeworking. “Solitude — and the ability to have more time for the deep focus work that is as much a part of creativity as collaboration — could be one of the greatest advantages of a distributed model.”

In recent years, office design has focused on creating collaborative spaces where people can meet to discuss ideas and hold serendipitous conversations. Yet Prof Dutcher is sceptical. “I’ve not seen convincing evidence that serendipitous conversations lead to increases in creativity.” Rather the benefit is passing on knowledge: if workers become more productive after a chance conversation then it is because they have learnt something they did not know.

Managers can look back at office serendipity with rose-tinted glasses, says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School and founder of advisory practice Hot Spots Movement. “A young person would never bump into a CEO in an office — let’s not pretend.” However, she sees merit in creating an environment for weak ties — casual acquaintances — to connect online. “The nature of weak links [is] you can have a lot more of them . . . you can bump into a lot more people.”

Workers also dealing with home-schooling will be only too aware of the impact of disruptions on their concentration
Workers dealing with home-schooling will be only too aware of the impact of disruptions on their concentration © Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Recently, her consultancy oversaw a mass virtual discussion on behalf of Ericsson, the telecoms group. An estimated 17,000 employees took part over 72 hours, making 28,000 comments. Supervisors distilled the conversation in real time, then analysed the data, drawing out themes and making recommendations. All the conversations were open to all participants and they could join as many as they wanted. It meant that the European chief executive could discuss new ways of working with an IT consultant in Indonesia.

Prof Gratton says the facilitators were key in giving a “lot of confidence” to employees. “Quite often in these situations it’s only the most extrovert who speak. The facilitator would pull them out, and say, ‘That’s interesting, can you give us an example?’”

Last year Dropbox took its annual global Hack Week online for the first time. Employees were encouraged to take a week out of their day jobs to devise projects. The virtual sessions resulted in higher cross-department and cross-regional collaboration and more projects than ever before. Dropbox employees created 29 per cent more demos — short videos demonstrating the new idea or product — than previous years, including some that will be implemented by the company. Ms Collins says, “The dissolution of location-based collaboration has allowed for more varied ideas to bubble up.”


17,000


Ericsson employees recently took part in a 72-hour mass virtual discussion

Nonetheless, at Axa, the insurers, Olivier Desbiey, group head of foresight, says the switch to virtual brainstorming workshops requires greater preparation. “People tend to speak politely, one after the other, rather than jumping on each other’s ideas.” He uses the example of a virtual discussion on the future of the insurance industry. In advance, participants were sent reading material and asked to prepare ideas.

“Typically an in-person workshop initially planned to last half a day resulted in a 90-minute online session,” he says. The online brainstorming sessions use tools such as Miro, the digital whiteboard, generating ideas on Post-it notes, as well as Klaxoon to vote for favourites.

Tristram Carfrae, deputy chair of UK design and engineering group Arup, has found the switch to remote meetings as an opportunity to involve more employees across a range of disciplines and locations online. He likes too the ability to mix chat by text and speaking. “Some people prefer different methods of communication. Everybody in a video conference seems to feel able to speak up. When in the physical location, it often refers to seniority. And some people do all the talking.”

A working from home call on Zoom. In the end, virtual tools transformed the mood at Color from a feeling of doom to optimism
A working from home call on Zoom. Virtual tools transformed the mood at Color from a feeling of doom to optimism © Charlie Bibby/FT

Technology advantage

In the end it was virtual tools that transformed the mood at Color from a feeling of doom to optimism. With Microsoft Teams, Mr Goral says, they soon learnt proximity was not as important than they thought. “The ability for multiple people to interact with the same screen using Share-Content was huge for our creative teams. The Whiteboard app has been great in creative concept meetings, allowing for a shared, real-time space, which is perfect for a good amount of tomfoolery as well.”

Longer-term, technology will adapt to foster creativity, says Sean Rintel, principal researcher at Microsoft. Using augmented or virtual reality headsets to “bridge the physical-digital divide and improve both all-remote meetings and future hybrid meetings . . . [could] open up the possibility for engaging with one another remotely that goes well beyond what is physically possible.” This might include anonymising contributions so that ideas are judged on their merits rather than the person who presents them, which could help reduce bias or stop the group from deferring to seniority.

Paul Levy, senior lecturer at Brighton Business School, is sceptical about tech companies’ attempts to create virtual serendipitous spaces, such as “lounges” at online conferences. “Whenever we try to design spontaneity in the digital world, we lose the serendipity because we designed it. I very much doubt we will ever discover an algorithm for serendipity.”

An employee works at a desk during the first phase of the reoccupation of offices in London in June
An employee works at a desk during the first phase of the reoccupation of offices in London in June © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

As organisations plan for a post-Covid future most envisage a hybrid pattern of working — a mix of office and homeworking. Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer at Workday, a software company, sees the office of the future as “more as a ‘hub’ where [employees] can meet colleagues to collaborate”. Creativity will be one consideration in determining how employees spend their days: group problem-solving at the office versus uninterrupted focus at home.

Homeworking is too easily blamed for work problems and the office has become a talisman. Prof Rehn says, “We love it when we don’t have it any longer. For years we complained about coming to the office, now we are free from the office we complain. I’ve been in big corporations for decades, the number of endless meetings I’ve been to. There is space for creativity in any work, there is innovation, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Modern corporations [are] built on routines, processes that aren’t conducive to creativity.”

Some argue that the need for white-collar workers to be creative is over-egged. The trend in imbuing knowledge work with creativity was spurred by the expansion of university education after the second world war and the surge in graduates entering the jobs market. André Spicer, professor for organisational behaviour at City Business School, says creativity became a way of pacifying educated workers as “companies need to make boring jobs seem like they are interesting”. This trend was intensified in the 1990s with tech companies’ playful interpretations of the workplace with a focus on table football, indoor slides and telephone boxes.

Workers at the Christian Dior factory make hand sanitisers for hospitals in Paris last March
Workers at the Christian Dior factory make hand sanitisers for hospitals in Paris last March © LVMH/AFP via Getty Images

Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace, suspects managers are complaining about diminished creativity as “a way of trying to give cover for control — people think you need offices [to] make sure people are in line.” Similarly, he adds that open plan offices are “rationalised as an exercise in creativity. [But] it’s largely because they’re cheaper.”

Forging the conditions for creativity to flourish is a problem that managers and academics have long debated. Prof Rehn says: “Creativity is a careful balance of generating an idea and working on it, a balance of working together and alone.” If creativity suffers in the homeworking experiment, pitching the office as the solution may be too simplistic. Stress over job losses, heavy workloads and social restrictions amid a global pandemic will also be hampering creativity.

Nonetheless, the Finnish professor of innovation is optimistic. “No one says that this has been easy but humans do persevere. And humans have created terrific works of art and new companies during raging wars.” What he hopes is “we take away from the pandemic a realisation that creativity is hard work”.