It's easy to feel stuck.
The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “How do you give your employees time to be creative at work?” is written by Lisa Haugh, vice president of people at Udemy.
“Be creative” isn’t one of those items on a to-do list that you can simply slot into your day. Brilliant ideas pop up on their own schedule—whether you’re in the shower, about to fall asleep, or out for a run.
Yet, creativity is vital to the success of companies and individuals alike. As business leaders, we exhort our teams to think out of the box, innovate, and try something new, but it’s hard to get into that mindset when you’re caught up in the daily grind and all of those other “urgent” to-dos.
Rather than just encourage or demand creative thinking from your workforce, your company culture needs to be one that gives people time and space to lift their heads from their laptops. That means rejecting traditional preoccupations with how long people spend in the office and at their desks and giving employees the freedom to follow whatever routine brings out their best work and gets those creative juices flowing.
See also: Why You Can’t Force Creativity at Work
My company subscribes to the philosophy that we should hire smart, adaptable people and then trust them to do their jobs and use their time responsibly. In a hyper-competitive job market like the San Francisco Bay Area, it just makes sense to offer flex hours and remote work. Of course, employees need to be available for collaboration and communicate their progress with their teammates, but they don’t need to conform to a 9-to-5 schedule either. We’re all wired differently—some of us come up with our best ideas first thing in the morning, and others only get going late in the afternoon.
That flexibility should apply to the entire day, in fact. If people hit the 3 p.m. slump, why not let them go out for a walk or gym break? We’re lucky to work not far from the Embarcadero, and I’m not the only one who gets recharged just by looking out at the water before returning to the office. Any change of scenery during the day can have that effect. You could head to a cafe to clear your head and take another crack at the problem that had you bogged down back at your desk.
Companies can provide respites inside the office too. My company has a device-free zen room, and we’ve set up quiet desks in another corner that anyone can use any time. One of our employees is a certified yoga instructor who teaches a class once a week. When there’s too much activity, noise, and distraction where you usually work but, say, it’s raining outside, these alternatives can help calm the mind and bring a renewed focus.
Another tactic I suggest to people: When you’re feeling stuck and uncreative, pick up the phone and talk to a former colleague, or someone else unrelated to your job. Run your sticky problem by your friend for a neutral perspective, even if she has no expertise in the area. It’s not uncommon for the most unexpected person to say something that sparks an idea and clears the clutter.
Sometimes random office conversations generate creative thoughts. Sometimes they get in the way. For that reason, I recommend leveraging technology to block distractions when you need intense focus. Tools like OmmWriter, which was specifically designed for writing, are great for maintaining concentration and setting the right mood, and there are lots of different ones out there so you can find your favorite. I also like Noisli for pretending I’m working from a remote cabin in the woods, listening to the sounds of gentle rain and birdsong.
Finally, employees might consider ditching technology entirely to get their juices flowing. Grab a pen and paper and find a quiet spot. Or get in front of a whiteboard and start scribbling. Draw pictures. Brainstorm. You shouldn’t worry about format or feasibility.
If you’re going to expect creativity from your team, you need to be creative in how you manage them. Forcing everyone into the same mold isn’t likely to yield the best thinking, so give them room to experiment and imagine.