During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, media outlets were brimming with stories of newly minted remote employees embracing creative pursuits like painting, baking or podcasting. Unchained from their cubicles, business and marketing creatives jumped on the bandwagon, bringing a renewed sense of creative energy to their jobs and personal projects.

Eight months later and with no end to the pandemic in sight, our perspective has shifted. As their easels and podcasting gear gather dust in the corner, business and marketing creatives are discovering the challenges of working in remote totality, especially when it comes to the creative process.  

Although most (but not all) creatives find work-from-home a more sensible and convenient context for the type of work we do, there’s a growing awareness that burnout and a lack of personal interactions can jeopardize the quality of our work and the creative process itself. 

But the solution to our creative woes isn’t necessarily a return to total in-office work routines — it’s finding ways to replicate the creative interactions we took for granted in the traditional workplace.

No idea is an island

At Walker Sands, the integrated creative team recently conducted a flash survey of its team members to gauge stress and uncover the challenges of remote work. While the survey confirmed many of our suspicions, it also uncovered some surprising insights about the issues today’s marketing creatives are struggling with.

The survey showed that a majority of team members feel like they have fully or almost fully adjusted to working from home. It also revealed that our integrated creatives find value in the ability to take breaks and step away from a project for a few minutes. That makes sense. I’ve always argued that creatives don’t work like employees on other teams. We work in spurts — a work style that’s difficult to pull off in an office where linear work routines are the status quo.

But despite the benefits, our integrated creatives also identified several remote work challenges. Team members reported that remote work has taken a toll on their mental and emotional health, and severely limited their ability to interact with friends and coworkers. One creative said, “I’ve really missed being in the same room as the team, collaborating, and quickly stopping by each other’s desks for advice.”

As a leader, this lack of interaction is disturbing. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the best ideas aren’t developed by a single person — they’re the synthesis of multiple ideas, a process that happens when creatives interact with each other. When opportunities for those creative interactions are disrupted or reduced, business creatives feel frustrated, drained and disengaged — ideal conditions for burnout.

The belief that creative life will return to normal post-pandemic is wishful thinking, at best. Gartner data shows that 48% of employees are likely to work remotely at least part of the time after the pandemic ends, and I suspect that percentage is even higher among business creatives. So, the critical question isn’t how to implement stop-gap measures to carry us for another six or 12 months, but how to rethink the tools that enable creative interaction in a hybrid or even fully remote work setting.

5 tactics for sustaining creative interactions among dispersed employees

When asked what motivates them at work, nearly all of our agency’s integrated creatives said they were inspired by the talent and support of their team members. That’s good news because it points to the positive influence creative interactions can have, even during a pandemic.

Like every business, our agency is a work in progress and we’re constantly refining the creative process. But there are several tactics we’ve found useful for promoting creative interactions among the writers, designers and other creative professionals who are currently working in a dispersed setting.

  1. Start with technology. Even before the pandemic, our agency used brainstorming solutions like Candor to generate and evaluate ideas without bias. Whether you use them informally or as part of a formal creative process, these kinds of solutions can serve as a catalyst for the kinds of interactions that drive innovation and creativity in your organization.
  1. Schedule creative work reviews. All our creative teams meet at regular intervals to present and discuss good work at the agency. From quarterly content and design retrospectives to monthly or even weekly group discussions, these events allow creatives to provide feedback and pollinate their work with concepts or approaches that are producing results in our industry.
  1. Rethink chat. Chat has become a vital communication channel during the pandemic. But rather than using chat exclusively for work talk, encourage your creatives (and other employees) to use chat for both work and non-work conversations. Creative interactions often occur at water coolers and desk drive-bys — chat can serve as a substitute for these opportunities among your dispersed creative workforce. 
  1. Encourage flexible work routines. Work styles vary among business creatives. But in general, creatives gravitate toward flexible work routines that allow them to step away from a project for a while so they can achieve a fresh perspective. Give your creatives the freedom to exercise flexibility in their work style, with the caveat that they update their calendars and communicate with team members when they are temporarily offline.
  1. Conduct wellness check-ins. Wellness check-ins, like the one we conducted with our integrated creative team, are valuable for both your organization and your creative employees. By gauging the current state of your team and following it up with a group conversation, you can make better decisions and create space for the emergence of ideas that improve the creative process as well as the everyday lives of your team members.

Life is difficult for everyone right now. But you have the ability to make it a little easier for the creatives in your organization. By taking steps to facilitate creative interactions in the new workplace, you can improve the quality of your organization’s creative deliverables — and help your creative team feel less frustrated, more inspired and more engaged in their work.

Tim Morral, Vice President, Executive Editor at Walker Sands, brings nearly two decades of editorial and content marketing experience to the team. From nuanced brand storytelling to the development of attention-grabbing owned media assets, Tim guides teams and clients in the creation of content that drives revenue and delivers measurable business results. A firm believer in the idea that great content generates real value, Tim helps B2B firms achieve clarity and amplify the volume of key messages in crowded markets.