Almost every news source I frequent is talking today about Bob Iger’s mandate for Disney hybrid employees to return to the office four days a week. Increased creativity and collaboration were cited as the reason.
Having spent nearly 25 years in the creative departments of advertising agencies and web boutiques, I can almost see the validity of that argument. Still, I don’t know how strong it is. As I think back to some of the better ideas I helped hatch in those days, proximity to other people in a designated space didn’t factor into the creative value of that idea.
Creative Collaboration: Where the Magic Happens
The ideas that come to mind were borne in two different ways: The first method involved semi-structured brainstorming sessions, often in a lounge area, over a couple of beers from the agency stockpile. These moments were magical and gave me pause in immediately dismissing this news as big business bluster. Moments like those are my favorite memories during my time in advertising, and they’re the thing that occasionally makes me nostalgic for my old career.
But most of the best ideas I was associated with came from a non-magical place. They started with a kick-off meeting, where an account strategist spent 20 minutes reading a document aloud that could have been emailed to all attendees. From there, I usually found a place away from my desk to brainstorm. If I had a writing partner assigned to me, we’d go off-site and talk over lunch, coffee, beer, or some such consumable. This would go on until a deliverable was made, and then it was presented.
I’m not unique in how I approached my work. Most great ideas aren’t created in a conference room or a cubicle. They are born in the wild. No reason to have to come into an office if you’re going to leave it to do your best work.
I’m curious about what hybrid and remote agency work is like post-pandemic. I haven’t seen any old friends or colleagues complain online that our changing views on work have killed their ability to do great, creative work. That tells me our current way of working isn’t affecting things too terribly.
We’re not saving lives here.
One of my favorite things to say to people getting too wound up in their thoughts about our latest effort to sell hamburgers or jeans was, “We’re not saving lives here.” I couldn’t use that phrase anymore after I joined Cerner in 2018.
User experience design for electronic health record software is not “creative” work. At least not in the sense I was used to. Our work is safe because our software must be safe and reliable. Lives are in the balance. But, to make it easier for healthcare providers to help us live healthy lives, we trade the word “creativity” for “innovation.” How can we leverage new technologies and knowledge that help others live their best lives?
The stakes are different, but the overall creative process isn’t. Our best ideas for improving our products haven’t happened in conference rooms. Even before the pandemic, the best ideas came from solitary thinking or off-site collaboration. Remote work didn’t hinder us in any way. On the contrary, I’d argue that it has improved the ability to think in some cases.
So, I can’t buy “creativity and collaboration” as a reason to force workers back into the office. Looking at this declaration, along with Elon Musk’s similar mandate at Twitter, I think it comes down to the old mega-CEO trifecta:
- A power trip fueled by that one hug that mommy didn’t give
- The dilemma of wasted dollars on real estate upkeep
- The fear that their cozy, familiar world of having control over the employees that they can see has gone away for good
I feel fortunate to work at a place that sees offices as tools to use when needed. Of course, now that we’re part of one of the largest tech companies in the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we received similar instructions should Disney’s mandate cause other corporations to get bolder in their work-in-office demands. But I don’t see that happening soon. We’re creating and innovating as much as we ever have, and if reducing real estate footprints allows us to continue, I think we’re OK.
That brings me to my recurring thought, “What the hell do we do with all these empty office buildings?” But that’s a mind twister for another time.