Why Working Remotely Can Be Bad for Creative Tension and How to Fix That

With businesses like Bank of America, IBM, and even newer tech companies like Reddit all pulling workers back into their offices, remote work policies seem to be vanishing. As far as fostering creativity and promoting creative solutions go, though, this shift back into the workplace is actually a good thing.

Forty-three percent of American workers reported working from home some of the time last year, and according to a TINYpulse survey, employees who work remotely feel more valued and are happier than those who don't. But those same employees also rate their relationships with co-workers lower than non-remote works, a problem that can lead to a lack of creative tension.

With employee productivity, satisfaction, and creative tension all being the end goal, companies need to address the "to-work-from-home-or-not" question with greater balance. Implementing strategies that don't keep workers chained to their desks but that do bring people into the office to foster the kind of collaborations necessary for creative accomplishment is the best option.

What Creative Tension Means

Virtual communication channels like Google Meet and messaging apps like Slack have allowed individual creativity to blossom in remote settings and are a big reason remote work became more common. While individual creativity may find a suitable home remotely, though, creative tension — that mild or extreme disagreement that's one of the driving forces of team innovation — is possible only during face-to-face interactions.

Our brains are hardwired to close the gap between our vision and a solution that renders the final product. Because of this, creative tension allows a release of more energy and creativity that helps us find ways to close that gap. Remote work reduces that process to an individual and internal struggle, which can stunt creative and company growth.

As an example, look at Corning Inc., the more than 160-year-old glass-blowing company whose customers have included Thomas Edison. Corning understands the freedom its creatives need in order to pursue the kind of innovations and inventions that have kept it viable for centuries, but it also believes in the rigors of accountability and collaboration that its in-house Sullivan Park research facility initiates.

Why Creative Tension Matters

Creative tension stimulated by collaboration such as an in-office meeting often sparks new and organic perspectives and ideas that may change the initial direction of a project but enrich its result.

Undertaking a similar process via Slack can make a conversation sound more like a list of requests or tasks, and those organic threads that may initially seem like tangents but can become integral to the creative process get lost in the more mechanized form of delivery.

Likewise, creative tension can improve problem-solving. Not only does this problem-solving offer employees greater emotional and mental stability by letting their brains rest and reducing the anxiety and worry over decision-making, but it also allows them to take greater risks with their ideas by alleviating the stress of failure. It sounds ironic, but creative tension can actually create an emotional safety net for people by affording them individual gratification and assurance.

When my company was working on our game Dead Last, our goal was to create a product that best fit the project requirements. The key engineer had envisioned the product going one direction, but after the entire company met to provide input, other ideas that combated that vision came into play.

The project got more complicated, as it became clear that an illustrator, a sound designer, and someone to assist with storyboarding those ideas were needed. But if we hadn't opened the project up to companywide collaboration, then its success would've fallen solely on the engineer, and it may not have become what it is today.

Harnessing Creative Tension by Finding That Balance

Some team leaders who've tried brainstorming sessions in the past may cringe at the suggestion of an open-floor or all-inclusive meeting. Likewise, their workers may have negatively reacted to increased meeting times, as that decreased their ability to work from home. But creating an environment fueled by creative tension isn't as difficult as it may seem. Here are four strategies for striking that home-office balance:

1. Implement Creative Meetings (With Non-Creatives)

Creative meetings are an opportunity to share and develop ideas, so they shouldn't consist entirely of announcements or delegating tasks. If the same end result can be accomplished via email or Slack, then it doesn't require a meeting.

As well, leaders should devote certain meetings like client kickoffs to companywide attendance, including people who don't consider themselves creatives: project managers, quality assurance, developers, sales, and operations staff. Outside and diverse opinions can ignite creative tension because of their penchant toward disagreement. Companies that don't work toward fostering this type of collaboration can wind up cloistering their creatives in little bubbles, which results in myopic thinking.

2. Stagger and Flex

Creativity is a paradox: It's free-flowing, but it needs structure to really take off. Holding endless brainstorming sessions every day of the week can burn out your employees. Instead, stagger meetings throughout the week; for example, try holding them on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays and Fridays.

A staggered schedule provides time for reflection and individual productivity. Moreover, you can offer employees one or two flex days when they can choose to work from home during those non-meeting days. Some employees really are more productive and independently creative from home, and those flex days cater to that.

3. Put Your Hat On, Then Take It Off

It's important for leaders to set clear ground rules for ideation and delivery during the meetings by reiterating that nothing is personal. Even though there is no such thing as a bad idea, finding and developing the best idea means that there will always be a certain amount of rejection and disagreement.

During the actual meetings, though, leaders need to cede the floor and let their teams know that they can speak their minds. By eliminating the top-down mentality — i.e., that the best ideas come from upper-level employees — leaders can ensure that they're optimizing creativity from all individuals across all levels of their company.

4. Be Willing to Adapt

After the meetings, leaders should solicit feedback about the creative process through various channels. Messaging apps like Slack, email, individual meetings with employees, or online and anonymous surveys can all work well.

Even if the process seems to be working, this feedback gives you greater insight into employee experience. While unrestrained meetings can be great for bouncing around several ideas, they're not everyone's ideal process for effective collaboration. Every company's culture is unique, so tweak these processes until you find the most productive fit for your people.

Remote work policies capitalize on comfort because comfort is an effective tool for maximizing productivity. But being creative often means stepping outside of comfort zones. Creative tension is essential to company growth and employee empowerment, and understanding how to harness it will only make your next big idea that much stronger.