collaboration creativity

WFH ≠ work alone

When I started my first job in design waaaaay back in the 90’s, it was as a part-time junior designer. The rest of the week I was home freelancing trying to make rent. Thinking back to those days, was I any more or less creative or lonely when I was working by myself versus working in a studio? No. Here’s why:

1. Technology is a game-changer.

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that advanced technology is a goddess-send when it comes to the functionality and productivity of a workplace. White-collar businesses whose livelihoods centered around meetings and documents, were able to continue pretty much unscathed during the pandemic thanks to platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, to name a few. Don’t even get me started on “The Cloud.” (Who needs a hard drive any more let alone a desk?!) Creative folks like me have also benefitted greatly from these strides with Adobe Creative Suite far surpassing the desktop Quark Xpress to which we were slaves in the 90’s. When I entered the design space, professionals were only beginning to adopt the desktop mode of design. This generation of designers feared that the computer would take away all tactile exploration of forms and automated font formatting would destroy the nuanced kerning and paragraph rags that required a keen and trained eye. At times, they were correct. I cringe at some of the letter spacing I see these days. So, what does all of this have to do with working from home versus not? My point is: things change, but creativity adapts, and the technology available to creatives today not only allows for more exploration, but it also allows for all of this to happen in a remote environment where ideas can be exchanged almost instantly—when you are ready to do so, not when the conference room was scheduled. Which leads me to my next point:

2. Night owls, wallflowers, and moms welcome.

Though the argument used to be that in-person workplaces were a breeding ground for spontaneous collaboration and inspirational exchanges, the truth is very different. This post was in fact inspired by a recent New York Times article stating the opposite: “Requiring people to be in the office can drive out innovation, some researchers and executives said, because for many people, in-person office jobs were never a great fit. They include many women, racial minorities and people with caregiving responsibilities or disabilities. Also, people who are shy; who need to live far from the office; who are productive at odd hours; or who were excluded from golf games or happy hours.” In short: not everyone beat boxes to the same drum. Working from home can enrich creativity because it allows the individual to work in a way that best suits them (like, say, when the kids are in bed and you can finally FOCUS for the love of all that is holy!). Also, I run. Not marathons, but part of my weekly exercise routine includes at least three, three- to four-mile runs. I can’t emphasize what a gift this is for my brain, let alone my body. I’m able to truly zone out and focus in on ideas my mind has been too splintered to consider fully. Some of my best concepts have been accomplished by literally putting one foot in front of the other. That, and grocery lists.

3. Your Zoom or mine?

As sad and truly devastating the pandemic has been, it has been a giant “Reset” button for industries. Instead of routine, we were forced out of our comfort zones and plopped in front of a screen that more resembled the opening of a Brady Buch episode rather than a workplace. And while many of us suffered from this shift (thinking of the millions of kids who had to spend the school year in front of a laptop), some of us gained new perspective on what collaboration truly means. We learned out of desperation for human contact to move away from “let’s get down to business” and toward “before we begin, how’s everyone doing?” It slowed us down. Made room for empathy. And, I don’t think any creative person will argue that more time to breathe and think could harm the creative process.

So, how does all of this change the workplace in the long run? Will offices become more social outlets for companies rather than task-master meeting spaces? A lot of us have found a nice rhythm (after much struggle) in the WFH lifestyle and will be sad to let it go completely. Luckily, I don’t have to, but I hope that for my colleagues, a shift will take place and companies will recognize that balance brings happiness, and that appreciating people’s different work styles and demands outside of the office makes us human, not slackers. That room, that air, will only improve innovation by giving us all time to reflect, organize and respond with innovation.

collaboration creativity self care

Points of View

Three tips on how to keep your perspective part of the conversation and when to take a look at things from someone else’s.

Speaking from my experience, when I was starting out in the business world as a design intern, then a junior designer, then a full-time legit designer, and so on, my ability to contribute to discussions and listen to feedback evolved over the years in a meaningful way. If I could go back and have a chat with intern-me, I would give her this advice:

You’re not always right.

This one is the hardest to learn. You may feel with your heart and soul that there is no way on this planet, in any state of consciousness, that you could be wrong or misguided in a particular instance, but I’m here to tell you, it’s bound to happen. That’s part of design. It’s a subjective industry. So if someone is disagreeing with your choice of PMS color, your font size, or patterned background, listen to them. A lot of the times, they may have a point. It is worth taking a moment, a breath, and learning from the perspective being presented to you as that person’s experience is just as valid as yours.

Remember: experience doesn’t always equal expertise.

This one goes both ways. Sometimes you will receive feedback from a superior, someone with more experience. But that doesn’t mean they are the end-all-be-all in opinions. In a good working relationship, you should be able to push back without losing respect or stepping on someone’s toes. Be confident and reasoned in your choices, and when someone with more experience questions them, be prepared to fight the good fight. But always remember my first tip. It’s a tango of wills. If you’re a pushover every time someone leans on you, then they aren’t going to see who you really are, what you have to bring to the table. They may even start believing you are undertrained. On the other hand, if you are the one who is always holding on to your ideas with a death grip and with whom no one wants to speak for fear they may lose a finger, your potential as a team player will greatly diminish—which could hurt you more in the long run, no matter how good your ideas are. It’s corny, but there really is no “i” in “team.”

At the end of the day, what you do for your job is important but not that important.

I probably should whisper this one. It’s like I’m revealing the recipe to the secret sauce. There’s a fine line between being passionate about what you do, and letting that drive rule your life. I am not saying that you shouldn’t put your all into what you do, every time you do it. What I am saying is that when you are young, perhaps unattached, it is easy to invest your passion in your job, completely, without any of the negative consequences that come along as you get older. I have a friend who joined a gym close to her work—not for exercise—just so she would have a place to shower the next morning when she ended up sleeping at the office. Some people (especially women and minorities, who are sadly still having to justify their positions of power) will keep this level of commitment even after their lives are further complicated, nay, enriched, by partners and kids and hobbies as they get older. Awesome. Do it if you can and your family supports it, but also know that you are allowed to afford yourself a break. Candles don’t last long when burned from both ends.

If you are a go-getter who wants to put 1,000 percent into your job and live your dream, you will most likely be successful and rise up that corporate ladder. Just be prepared for all of the services you’ll most likely have to purchase in order to keep the rest of your life afloat. Doing so, in no means, connotes a personal failure. It’s the cost of doing business in a society that isn’t well set up for family-minded people who would like to present their project to the client, but also be out on time to catch their daughter’s little league game. At the end of the day, just ask yourself before you turn out the lights, “is the person I am today who I want to be?” And, be honest in your answer. If the answer is No, look at ways to introduce some balance, even if it means supporting your local food delivery drivers a little more often, or creating an online group of neighborhood working families to exchange ideas, frustrations, and carpools. Chances are, these days, that the client you are preparing that presentation for also has a little league game she needs to get to.

It may be a little hard to see how that last tip has anything to do with how to keep your perspective part of the conversation, but it whole heartedly does. If you don’t let the other parts of your life start to inform how you behave or contribute at work, you are setting up a dual personality that will be hard to sustain. If memory serves, Dr. Jekyl didn’t turn out so well. Realize and relish in the fact that our walls between work and home are blurring. At first, that was scary. We always wanted to keep work and home separate, but when, for many of us, working from home became a health requirement, the world began to realize that we’re not all that different. Even CEOs have cats who photobomb a Zoom call. Treating others the way you want to be treated, including giving others the break you would like afforded to you next time your child’s science experiment permanently alters your home’s floor plan will only help us all keep in mind the humanity behind the creativity we bring forward. The messy, flammable humanity.