WFH or back to office: Where does creativity thrive?

Keeping in mind pandemic learnings, we ask agencies their preferred working model going forward when it comes to fostering creativity.

Last month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his employees must spend at least 40 hours per week in the office or resign.

He’s not the only one campaigning to cut back on remote working. As Covid shifts from pandemic to endemic, many agencies are now pushing policies or trying incentives to encourage staff back into the office. But for an industry that relies so heavily on creativity, is this the best approach?

Opinion remains divided. For some, working from home stifles creativity and hinders collaboration, but others say the open-office—with all its distractions—is a creativity-killer and working from home allows a different kind of creativity to shine as many artists are introverts at heart.

There's no clear-cut, evidence-based answer as to whether remote or in-person work is more conducive to creativity. A recent study by the journal Nature, based on a field experiment across five countries, found that video-conferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas. But that study also found that video conferencing was as effective as in-person meetings for choosing which ideas to pursue.

So the jury's out. But should ad agencies, like Musk, be pushing staff back to the office? Or has the way we worked changed for good?

“The working model has evolved, whether Elon Musk likes it or not," says Thomas McMullan, creative director at Digitas Australia. "We’ve rediscovered that employees are people, and—strangely enough—that means forcing them into an office for a third of their lives might not be optimal for everyone."

McMullan says he is keen for his team to spend a good amount of their week in the office, but only in a way that suits them.

"Incentives are short-term thinking," says McMullan. "I think managers need to lead by example and demonstrate the value of being in the office, the value of non-digital culture, and how in-person contact can positively affect their work. This also means demonstrating that it’s okay to WFH when it suits."

VCCP opened their Singapore office three-and-a-half years ago and have been dealing with the impacts of Covid for more than half of their existence. But ultimately, they are very happy to have staff back in the office.

"We are an agency that works together in our office, supported by working from home. Not the other way around," says Craig Mapleston, CEO of VCCP Singapore. "This means we expect the team to work from the office more than they work from home."

For Mapleston, the biggest appeal of office working is the chance to collaborate and spend time with colleagues and clients. "We’ve been very happy to welcome clients back into the office too," says Mapleston. "The chance to get some quality relationship and work time with clients has been my personal highlight of the relaxed Covid restrictions."

Creativity favours flexibility

While some agencies are split between the remote working full time or back-to-office camps, others have found a more flexible approach is the best model for creativity to flourish.

"What we have seen through the pandemic is that not only did productivity and creativity not get compromised, they in fact thrived, with some of the best work coming out from our Dentsu APAC network over the last three years," says Yvonne Tan, group HR director, Southeast Asia, Dentsu International. "And therefore, flexibility as well as the respect and trust for our people to exercise their best ways of working will continue to be the key in unleashing even greater creativity in the new norm."

Tim Lindley, managing director of VaynerMedia Asia Pacific, believes the five-day at-your-desk work week is gone. "People want the flexibility to lead their lives around what matters to them," he says. "I don’t believe creativity is limited by distance."

"Our teams have turned remote work into an art form, and have delivered stellar creative work without ever meeting in person. Much of what we do crosses borders anyway, and with everyone in the same boat we’ve seen stronger bonds built between people in different countries. That’s incredibly valuable."
Tim Lindley, VaynerMedia

In fact, VaynerMedia are currently building their new regional HQ in Singapore with a hybrid working model in mind.

"It’s a huge space, designed to complement a work-from-home environment," says Lindley. "The ambition is to create somewhere our teams can collaborate, work with influencers, host events, and make content. I’m also excited to see the friendships that are made when teams across the company start spilling over more."

Can teams be just as creative working remotely?

"Long before Covid, many of the best ideas came from outside of the office walls," says Psembi Kinstan, ECD at DDB Group Melbourne.

"Working out of the office has always been part of the way creatives work. Spending a little more time working from overseas or down the coast, or with our families and friends not on buses and trains, or just having a day or two to focus on the craft of a project, that all makes creatives better too."
Psembi Kinstan, DDB

But for some, the office is still the best facilitator of collaboration with teammates which, in turn, enables the best creative work to be produced. 

"Creative briefing, ideation, presentations and feedback sessions are all better done together in person," says VCCP’s Mapleston. "100% WFH is undoubtedly a hindrance to great creative work. The spark that great collaborators can elicit in each other is much harder to ignite virtually."

But Lesley John, managing director of Virtue APAC, argues that you can be just as creative working outside of an office environment than within it.

"The open office concept that was intended for interaction and effective collaboration has been proven not to work, yet it is the way offices are now designed by default," says John.

While John believes it is important for creative minds to come together at key points in time, she equally feels it’s crucial that they have the space and time away from each other to work on their own when needed. 

"We have found by not mandating specific days and times they need to be in the office, our teams naturally are driven to decide when is most effective or appropriate for them to come together and it is working well for the business, productivity and creative development."
—Lesley John, Virtue 

Adithya Deepan, creative director at We Are Social Singapore, concurs: “Isolation is a powerful tool for creativity. It gives you the space and time to brew your thoughts. Today, we are all just one WhatsApp away to text your team with a good idea. Nothing stops a person to be creative.”

He adds that a work-from-anywhere model will go on because the industry has proven that it can get the job done well regardless of location.

Of course, beyond idea generation and collaboration, there's also pitching and meeting clients. Mapleston argues there is no substitute for personal meetings to build chemistry, establish and build relationships or sell ideas. And there is no doubt that face to face meetings give a competitive advantage in pitches.

"How many of us have had to do ‘chemistry’ meetings virtually? It makes a mockery of the purpose of the meeting," says Mapleston. "To make things worse, I am sure many of us have had the displeasure of building chemistry with black boxes, as some clients refuse to even turn on their cameras."

He points out that creativity is not just about coming up with nice ideas. They need to be bought by clients to count. "Virtual creative presentations take away the personal touch and the palpable emotion that can deliver equal measures of fear and excitement in the client," he says. "And capturing not just the skills, but the passion of the agency team is so much harder virtually. Quite simply, we sell better ideas in person."

Is hybrid the future?

There will always be those who prefer working in person and those who prefer remote working. The same is true for creativity. Some get more out of interaction, while others are more creative when they have time alone and space to think without distractions. So why not allow both? It seems the hybrid model is the future, and one that can accommodate all preferences and working models.

"While we of course see benefits in having in-person interaction, especially for the creative process, we believe a hybrid model allows for better flexibility as our people manage their work and personal lives," says Stanley Clement, chief executive officer of MBCS Malaysia. "A lot of time gets wasted in the commute to and from work and this time can be better spent. Conversations with a loved one, a quick run to the store, a diversion on a passion project or even a quick power nap allows us to recharge and continue, and leads to better mental health, wellness and overall productivity. That is something we prioritise very highly."

Melvin Mangada, chief creative officer at TBWA Philippines, says the past two years have proven that the creative process is fluid and not defined by space and time.

"We’ve been able to create and produce campaigns—physically alone in our make-shift offices at home, but virtually together. Working from home presented possibilities that more traditional thinking would have resisted in normal times."
Melvin Mangada, TBWA


On a practical level, Mangada believes we should reallocate budgets to home equipment and connectivity and less on office utilities and physical furniture. He says: "We should redirect our attention to technology and how underutilised it has been all these years. We’ve realised how much time and resources have been wasted in the old system."

For Virtue’s John, her teams will continue operating a hybrid working model, a model the pandemic has merely formalised for them.

"We understand that each individual performs at their best with different working styles," says John. "The importance therefore lies in driving a clear understanding of the agency culture, overall vision and expectations, and then trusting that individuals and teams, given the appropriate amounts of freedom and flexibility, will make the right decisions that maximise their ability to create and meaningfully contribute to the best of their potential alongside the needs of the business."


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