Not So Fast: Does working from home stifle creativity?

“Not So Fast” is an occasional blog series in which CultureIQ slices and dices claims around employee research. 

As the great remote-work migration began in early March, a New York Times contributor tossed a big bucket of cold water onto office refugees in his essay, “Sorry, But Working from Home is Overrated.” Tech columnist Kevin Roose urged readers to “avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible” because while remote workers might be more productive, they can lose “harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking.”

Roose offers scant research to support his complaints, but he does link to a 2017 article in The Atlantic that focused on IBM eliminating its remote work policies. Flash forward 3 years, and remote work has now become much more widely accepted and seen as essential in attracting talent,  IBM has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by asking its employees to work remotely when possible.

Creativity at a distance

If we believe Roose, working remotely means we’ll have to leave our more creative selves behind at the office. But is he right? As it turns out, maybe not so much. We did a little digging, and found that the home actually can offer a terrific climate for brainstorming.

IsaacNewton-WoolsthorpeManorHome
Sir Isaac Newton and the family home where his creativity flourished during a quarantine.

Let’s talk science, for instance. Sir Isaac Newton came up with the concepts for calculus, and the seeds for his famous theory of gravity, not only at home, but during a quarantine as the Great Plague of London raged in the 17th Century. Turns out his isolated family farm, free from distraction and danger, was the ideal place for him to get his genius on.

The same holds for virtuosos like Beethoven and Mozart, who created symphonies and operas in their homes, for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who began a computer empire in a residential garage, and for inventors who brainstormed Velcro, the dishwasher and Liquid Paper in their foyers and kitchens.

To top it off with some irony, Alex Osborn, the BBDO ad agency founder who made “brainstorming” a household word, was himself a solo brainstormer who extolled the virtues of ideation at home vs. the office. According to this Quartz article:

“Osborn proposed that offices, the venue for most brainstorming meetings today, “are less good for creative thinking than for judicial functioning.” His book describes how he once found it useful to chew over a creative problem in the middle of the night, when he was already awake with worry over a failing friendship. “Next to the bedroom there is a tiled tower called the bathroom where our creative minds likewise like to work,” he wrote. “A good long shower or a hot tub often induce ideas.”

 From ideation to collaboration

It’s certainly true that all innovations are built on some kind of collaborative effort, but if you look at the arc of creative breakthroughs, from Archimedes to Einstein, there’s never been any rule that you have to actually be in the room with your collaborators to iterate on someone else’s idea or turn it into something new.

Some studies–and Shark Tanks–show that once you have your great idea, you’ll have a better chance at making it a successful reality if you team up. That makes sense, but even before the pandemic struck, plenty of companies proved that you can build that collaboration from an all-remote workforce and grow a successful, innovative business.

Different innovation strokes

This isn’t to say that you won’t be lonely, or your work life balance won’t blur, as you shelter at home (also things Roose complained about in his essay.) And we’re certainly not saying that some people won’t find it tougher to brainstorm when not in the direct presence of colleagues.

But not every employee’s creativity thrives in the same way. So, leaders who want to keep the brainstorms rolling in should have a strong sense of how team members grow new ideas, especially in this new remote-work world. Could be some need more teamwork and collaboration – and could be that others are finding that alone time at home creates the most fertile ground for great innovations.

Either way, you’ll need all the employee feedback and new ideas you can get to keep your organization healthy when facing challenges, no matter how severe or sudden.

Related Resources: