Rethinking creativity looks different for everyone as the pandemic wanes

From left: The Pattern founder and CEO Lisa Donovan; IBM VP of transformation Monika Means; Adobe VP of marketing strategy and communications Stacy Martinet; and Blizzard Entertainment executive VP of Development Jen Oneal.
Courtesy of The Pattern, IBM, Adobe, Activision Blizzard

If you find yourself turning ollies in the recently remastered version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, the streetscapes might look a little emptier than before.

“Elements in the levels, like empty storefronts, give a nod to the situation we’re in,” Jen Oneal, executive vice president of development for Blizzard Entertainment, said during a breakout session at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women virtual summit on Wednesday. “Art is a reflection of life, and [the pandemic] fueled our creators to incorporate what they were experiencing at the time.”

The link between creativity and empathy, as pointed out by moderator, conference cochair, and Fortune features editor Kristen Bellstrom, was at the forefront of this session. During the pandemic, Oneal and three other creative leaders repeatedly recognized ideas were more likely to ignite when companies allowed space and grace for the humanity of the moment.

“We’ve all lost so much collectively and personally, there’s a lot to grieve,” Stacy Martinet, Adobe’s vice president of marketing strategy and communications, said. “Trying to even get dressed from the waist up, then being productive, being creative, growing the business [is a challenge]. You have to care of yourself.”

“The pandemic is requiring us to have conversations about mental wellness that we would never have had in the workplace,” said Monika Means, IBM’s vice president of transformation. A plaque peeked out from behind her video square, reading, “Take time to do what makes your soul happy.”

“I keep it on every Webex because not only is it a reminder for me, I hope it’s a reminder for those looking back at me,” she explained. “Otherwise, burnout is inevitable for all of us.”

The specific activity (or non-activity) that makes team members happy—and thus able to be their best creative selves—varies from cleaning to reading to running. (“The rhythm of sweeping my floors gets my creative juices flowing,” Oneal said, laughing.) But all four session participants agreed that, in the work-from-home era, flexible, asynchronous, individualized scheduling is paramount.

“Being home and able to decide how you’re breaking out your time is really conducive for creativity,” said Lisa Donovan, founder and CEO of The Pattern. “There’s this thing where [you think], ‘I must work eight hours in this capacity,’ but your brain can only do so much for so long.”

Martinet has stopped using the term “work/life balance,” whose connotations of perfect equality can be unrealistic and dangerous. “We call [it] work/life integration,” she said. “In that spirit, I like not being rushed getting ready in the morning. That’s a ritual I’d like to keep [when returning to the office], so I’m going to talk to my leader [about] how I don’t want meetings before this time. I don’t want to sit at my desk and eat lunch. I want to go for a walk. To declare what those guardrails are.”

At IBM, Means has engaged her team with, “How can I give you an open-box note with prompting questions so you can come in whenever works for you—whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.—and add your ideas?”

The session participants acknowledged as well the importance of creating mental sanctuaries, in which there’s space to flourish. “You can’t schedule creative inspiration,” Oneal said, though if you absolutely have to, Martinet’s recommended shortcut is the Kygo remix of Whitney Houston’s “Higher Love.”

“If I ever need one thing to get me going, that’s it,” she said. “But just showing up is an accomplishment right now.”

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.

Read More

Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative