The “return to work” movement (or at least discussion) is in full swing. Against a backdrop of continuing virus outbreaks and shifting employee sentiment, organizations are trying to figure out — or in some cases prescribe — what the next normal will be.
Organizations worldwide are making decisions about whether to commit to a fully remote workforce, offer a hybrid work model, or require employees to return to the office. They are weighing what they believe the business needs alongside what employees say they want or need.
Each approach has its benefits and challenges. While an in-office environment can create a more distinct company culture and foster a sense of belonging, being together in person all of the time, or even most of the time, is no longer what most employees desire.
A May 2020 survey conducted by Glassdoor found that, at the time, 75% of employees were eager to return to the office.
Fast-forward 16 months and studies are showing the majority of workers prefer the opposite. They desire the option to work from home.
Sure, some employees may miss the camaraderie and routine of working in an office, but most (including working parents) are ambivalent or unable or unwilling to make the transition back to predominantly on-site work.
A hybrid approach to work seems to offer the best of both worlds — the fellowship of an office environment plus the flexibility of remote work. In fact, a recent Accenture study found that 83% of employees prefer a hybrid approach.
Workers who can work remotely between 25% and 75% of the time (Accenture’s definition of hybrid work) have reported better mental health, stronger work relationships, and less burnout.
Yet, the decision about the right model for your organization isn’t just about employee experience. Ultimately, it’s a business decision that affects productivity, innovation, and growth.
A common rationale for returning to an in-person work environment is that it facilitates serendipitous, cross-organizational interactions (think casual chats on the elevator or in the snack room) and that the informal, unscheduled interactions of team members spark more collaboration. Both serendipity and informal collaboration can fuel creativity and innovation.
The reality for many employees reflecting on their experiences is that their workplaces didn’t necessarily facilitate this type of fertile, innovative environment. For those that did experience the value of serendipity, camaraderie, and hands-on collaboration, many are still questioning whether the costs, including additional obstacles, outweigh the benefits. And whether being in-person is the only path to that end.
What the data say
We collected data from a nationally representative sample of full-time U.S. employees.
272 of these individuals worked in an office before the pandemic but worked remotely during the pandemic.
These employees reported feeling more effective in their remote work environment than they ever did in the office.
In fact, our data shows that workers are experiencing 56% greater creativity and innovative thinking when working remotely.
What it means
What is it about remote work that improves creativity? Is there something about being remote that ignites or amplifies creativity? Or is it the reverse, being remote removes some obstacle to creativity?
With this data set alone, we can’t answer that question with certainty. However, the data are suggestive of some possible contributors:
- Long commutes and meeting-filled days act as an obstacle to creativity. The time gained back from commuting and meetings provides the reprieve needed to think and process; quiet time to recharge may be more manageable when working from home. A quick task switch is in the next room. A neighborhood walk or change of scenery is just outside your door.
- Less physical presence and more asynchronous collaboration allow more types of people to contribute and for participation to be more thoughtful. Zoom and other video-conferencing with chat screens might make some employees more comfortable sharing ideas or speaking up in meetings.
Those who get anxious or overwhelmed in large meetings or by forceful personalities may feel less intimidated by the equalizing effect of small images or emboldened by the computer screen separating them and their audience. Slack channels and easily accessible shared documents also allow for different types and tempos of collaboration.
- Home is a place of safety and strength. Perhaps working in a familiar environment helps workers feel more like themselves, supporting a greater sense of psychological safety and ultimately strengthening the diversity of the team — a factor proven to lead to more creativity.
- Avoiding adding more stress. Importantly, we know that poor mental health impedes creativity. If employees feel uncomfortable or stressed returning to the office, their productivity and innovation will suffer, especially if they excel in a remote environment.
Before reverting to “butts in seats,” organizations should consider all the benefits and challenges of remote work — not just for the individual employee but also the innovation and performance of the organization.
Ultimately, if your workforce works better at home, your bottom line may suffer if you pull them back into the office.
Stifling creativity can affect the quality of your leadership, too. Creativity differentiates a good leader from a great one, and creative leaders can help your organization use resources and solve problems in unique ways.
The best solution for your organization may be a hybrid approach. It provides the space and freedom for your employees to work remotely when they need to — affording you access to their creativity — yet maintains a sense of company culture and camaraderie, which many leaders are eager to revive.
It’s worth continuing to revisit the goals of returning to the office and the assumptions behind those plans. And, the most creative approach to continuing to facilitate creativity in your teams might be, rather than trying to replicate what you previously gained in-person, to start anew with a beginner’s mindset. You might just discover something better.
Sr. Insights Manager