How hybrid working could be hurting creativity

03 November 2022 6 min. read
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As they look to hand onto talent amid the Great Resignation, many employers have been quick to adopt some kind of hybrid working model, and capitalise on home-working habits that many staff picked up during the pandemic – but that is not without its own risks. Sandrine Delabrière, Principal Consultant at Skarbek Associates, suggests that firms should be mindful of what they might lose, if they look before they leap with hybrid working.

Sandrine Delabrière has over 20 years of extensive experience within FMCG, consumer healthcare, cosmetics, food and beverages, as well as other B2C sectors. She has spent her career operating for clients across Europe, Asia, the US and the Middle-East. Over the last three years in particular, she has seen many business leaders responding to unprecedented conditions – and learned from their successes and mistakes. Often, they have underestimated the impact the shift to home-working in some form will have on their operations.

Delabrière explains, “Innovation is a well proven path to delivering growth and for many CEO’s is their preferred go to lever of growth.  To deliver innovation requires creativity, which in turn needs time, space and often collaboration.”

Sandrine Delabrière, Principal Consultant, Skarbek Associates

She recalls one General Manager in the FMCG industry who felt ‘in the first months of lockdown… hybrid working would not impact our projects’ progress too much’. This is something many managers clearly also felt – relying on their teams’ methods and existing bonds to make things happen during uncertainty. But few anticipated what would follow over the next period.

“With multiple shockwave events and several economic crises that then followed, these ‘temporary’ changes are both deeper and longer than anyone had anticipated,” Delabrière continues. “Are the new habits of hybrid working helping, or inhibiting creativity? There are differing views among managers and the debate is indeed worth exploring.”

Explaining creativity

In an article originally published on Skarbek Associates’ website, Delabrière defines creativity as “the ability to put together unrelated ideas to arrive at novel solutions”. The consists of multiple steps: “having some objectives, receiving some stimuli from various sources, thinking of a subsequent solution – and then, in the context of an organisation, expressing this idea internally.”

Thinking about creativity, and what it takes, in these terms, can help understand the impact hybrid working may have on it, Delabrière argues.

Ultimately, it boils down to how well an organisation’s plans and communicates with its staff, though. Those with clear objectives will suffer less than their peers, as “teams know their over-arching priorities and will keep striving to meet them” wherever they are working. But it is when these plans come to a crossroads, or communication is needed that firms need to consider how they address hybrid working.

“A number of factors will come into play, depending on how hybrid working is applied, and on the nature of the teams,” Delabrière expands. “Some agile companies have found new tactics to mitigate the effects of the new working context. Online solutions have emerged to allow for collective contributions, despite the distance: ‘brain-swarming’ has replaced ‘brain-storming’, with key business challenges being posted on a digital platform for the teams to contribute over a fixed period of time. They provide individuals more time to formulate their ideas, forcing them to be clear, relevant and concise.”

This does come with some benefits analogue working might not have. It can mean a project team can reach out to more members, with no geographical constraint, increasing the diversity and the skill relevance of the team. Meanwhile, one-to-one sessions between direct reports have found a renewed power, have been able to become “a lot more frequent than wider group meetings” – allowing “the best managers to adjust to this and deepen their bonds to the individuals within their teams, increasing both the clarity of the assignments and employees’ motivation.”

Protecting creativity

This does not make hybrid working a panacea, though. Managers must not overlook its challenges, particularly when regarding the fact “distance has not affected individuals in an equal manner.” It is important that from a diversity and inclusion perspective, firms take into account different personality types. While for instance “more introverted individuals” might find “distance can prove beneficial to creativity”, others will find the absence of collective stimulation and the lack of immediate feedback to be a barrier.

As a result, despite all of the positives, many teams have suffered from working at a distance. Over the longer period of time since this adaption took place in early 2020, the strain on many has become easier to spot.

“The human brain seems to be fully activated when it benefits from human presence - we are social animals,” Delabrière says. “A Marketing Director in the F&B industry commented: ‘I can tell during the video meetings that my team is not as ignited as it was during in-person meetings. People do not react as quickly when a question is asked, the pace and passion are not the same.’  It seems harder for a team to feel engaged when physically disconnected.”

The lack of in-person presence can be particularly harmful when new team members join. For all the resources large companies have poured into VR and remote onboarding processes, they are struggling to fill the void. The formation of ‘free associative thoughts’, and even more the act of voicing them, requires trust among individuals – and Delabrière asserts that “trust cannot truly happen without direct human interactions over time.” Nor, she adds, can the sense of “being part of a collective project, with a deep sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging.”

Delabrière concludes, “As most companies get out of the survival mode back into normal operations, it is reassuring to look into what can be done to protect creativity, as an essential but fragile driver. Beyond specific tools and an adjusted style of management, each organisation will have to carefully find the right balance between in-person and at-a-distance work. Indeed, it is also even more reassuring to accept that nothing beats the magic of direct human interaction in order to generate ideas and drive a business forward.”