Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash

Creativity, Productivity, Wellbeing — can all three thrive when working from home?

orking from home has been a topic of much discussion for many years. But as the pandemic has forced a large majority of the world to effectively work from home most of the year, it has rapidly boiled to the surface of debate with scalding vigour.

First, it’s important to contextualise comments as the last year has been, of course, not an ordinary year. With 2021 looking to be much the same. We are working from home in a crisis. We’re all working from home at the same time. Offices are closed.

This is an important distinction as in a crisis or times of peak stress, emotions are elevated. Behaviours are altered. Oftentimes, outside our control. Sometimes without our knowledge.

At various board meetings I have attended recently, we discussed the long-term impact of full-time working from home on business performance. The top three being productivity, creativity and wellbeing.

Productivity — financial and talent impact

In the main, people seem to be working harder and longer. Which, if you are focused on business metrics as a key performance indicator (KPI), could be perceived as good news. Particularly if high productivity translates into increased revenues and profits.

Our days undisturbed by the many casual interruptions, or overhearing colleagues on the phone in noisy shared working spaces (although parents with their children at home due to school closures will strongly counter this is not the case for them). We have nowhere to be in the evenings, so we regularly work late. Weekends too. More on this in a moment.

But it also has not been easy. Certainly, for start-ups. Sales conversations have been extremely hard as relationships with new customers are difficult to initiate and build over video calls alone. Trust is taking much longer to earn.

Remote management of teams can be extraordinarily difficult too. It can be challenging to see who is doing what each day and whilst trust is always needed, for those who perhaps struggle with time management and prioritisation, some have found the removal of a formal office structure testing.

Not to mention an arguably unmeasurable productivity metric, that of collaboration, coaching and advancing the learning of less experienced team members. Or new team members who may need advice on how to navigate a large company to execute their tasks. Having worked at a very large global bank, I can vouch for the complexities of matrix companies and the many surprises one will encounter if you don’t know how the company works on the inside. Where the secret doors and levers are.

Earlier in my career, I greatly valued the ability to listen in on more experienced colleagues’ conversations to learn how they handled a situation. As well as be able to visibly see that a senior leader was potentially interruptible. Maybe they were going for a coffee or sat at their desk reading a newspaper, meaning that I felt able to approach them and ask for their advice. This has disappeared in the virtual world and I do worry about the long-term impact this is having on junior team members should we find ourselves working from home full-time for a long time.

Creativity and collaboration in a virtual world

The next theme in discussions has been the impact on creativity. Often co-mingled with productivity, specifically potential impact on innovation through a lack of real-world collaboration. The opinion being that creativity has declined in the last year.

A view I share as whilst distance, time and limited resources have definitely not stood in the way of developing ideas — largely thanks to group video calls. I would argue creativity has been somewhat impacted by full-time working from home. Not stopped. It has lessened.

Whilst I relish the quiet of my home to unleash my imagination and think uninterrupted. Not to mention the freedom of lunch time or morning walks in the woods near to where I live. Ideas, even brilliant ideas, need nourishment. A spark can vanish in an instant if you’re sat on your own with no-one to bounce it off who could potentially make it even better.

We’ve all attended an “official” video brainstorming call to share ideas. You have to stare at a screen. A wall of digital faces staring back at you, where only one person can speak at once and there being no ability for quiet side conversations with the person sat next to you. It’s not great and many say they find it more draining than an in-person meeting.

Through not sharing a physical space, innovation and creativity has become much harder. Not to mention the road-mapping and execution of ideas when they do come to the surface. It’s not impossible, just harder. And extremely difficult to measure as creativity isn’t something which can be easily quantified.

We could be on the brink of a wellbeing crisis

So, productivity is up, creativity has slowed. What about wellbeing? I think we all agree that wellbeing has taken a hit and is severely down. The boundaries between the workplace and home have blurred to extreme levels, with many people reporting they are struggling to separate “office time” and “personal time”.

Talking to senior HR friends who have actively encouraged companies to allow for flexible working arrangements to attract and retain talent for years. None had ever given consideration to the potential impact of an entire workforce working from home permanently. That’s a very different picture with many airing concerns about the long-term damage of full-time working from home.

The likely loss of a work/life balance, long-term isolation for those on their own, difficulties juggling childcare and work for those who are parents when schools close, all accelerated by an often-crippling fear of catching the virus or losing our job. The latter fuelling the psychologically damaging need to be seen to be always working and thus indispensable should redundancies occur.

It’s stark, bleak and dangerous if ignored.

Deep fatigue and extreme stress, combined with wider societal anxieties around the pandemic and the lack of a clear endpoint, risk igniting an unprecedented and costly mental health crisis. One which business leaders, and the healthcare system, are simply unprepared for.

Sophisticated technology has helped us to stay connected “virtually” throughout the crisis. And for those with office-based jobs, this same technology has enabled us to work from home safely. Protecting our physical health. But what about our mental health?

Fundamentally, human beings need social interaction. It’s imbedded into us since time began when our very survival depended on trusting and supportive relationships. And no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes; emotional and physical connectivity remains a core part of being human. We need each other for psychological survival.

Future of the office

Random interactions are how our relationships are formed and sustained. Sure, we can communicate through email, text, video-chat and social media. But these types of conversations rarely spark spontaneous joy. Nor do they allow us to read body language, the non-verbal cues which, depending on which research study you read, account for at least 70% of our communications.

And yes, video calls can help tackle this. True. But it’s not the same.

In 2021 as society (hopefully, please!) re-emerges at some point and we can safely lead our lives again it will be interesting to see how the pandemic has impacted office-based roles. I for one hope we don’t see early productivity metrics influence a switch to more permanent full-time working from home. As much as I enjoy the no commute.

The pandemic has proven working from home can positively effect business performance.

But it’s definitely not black and white. Office or home.

I don’t believe the office is dead. But I do believe we will see large questions being asked about how much office space a business truly needs and where that office is based. As in, is there a need to pay for expensive prime city locations as both flexible and remote working becomes imbedded into post-pandemic business cultures?

What do you think?

Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer of Treehouse. A London-based ESG-focused fintech. Trying to reverse climate change. One tree at a time 🌳

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