As many ad agencies across the world start opting to permanently move to a hybrid work-at-home/office or full-time work-at-home environment, what is to become of the highly collaborative creative process used to generate effective and authentic work? As teams find their way back to their desks, they’re finding that the office is a very different place. The hybrid workspace, a combination of remote and in-office employees, is here for the foreseeable future. The very real challenge for creative thinkers is to reproduce the teamwork and collaboration that existed when we were all together.

First, let’s try to define the basic creative work process. (This can vary wildly from agency to agency and team to team. So, let’s keep it super top-line.) The client has a marketing need, and the agency is tasked to devise an effective strategy to accomplish the client’s goals. The project eventually will be turned over to a creative team to collaborate and develop impactful ideas to reach the client’s intended audience. Within that process, some highly collaborative engagements must take place inside and outside the creative team.

The question is how did that collaborative process change while we were quarantined, and did it change permanently?

“Collaboration.” I know I’ve been using the word over and over, but collaboration may be the one process that will be impacted the most in our post COVID-19 workplace. Dependable tech has made working and sharing ideas remotely a reality. We can effectively video conference and chat to get “real-time” interactions with our teammates. That’s been proven, but where might these new types of exchanges be coming up short?

The New “Workplace”

There are many documented benefits to working from home. Remote work has created a new kind of team that isn’t in just one place. We work with talent all over the country, in fact all over the world. Agencies can recruit talent that would never have considered relocation in the past. Now relocation doesn’t even have to be an issue. Talent that would never consider working in a particular part of the country can do so without even moving there. A great example is our own agency located in Phoenix, where the temp can soar over 120 degrees in the Summer. A talent from Chicago can live in their beloved, frozen, ice ball, while still being a part of our team in the desert.

To be fair, there are negative aspects to a hybrid work force as well. Collaboration within a group and with other departments is more challenging. The exchange of ideas is less spontaneous. Most interactions must be scheduled with a link attached. There’s no leaning over to your cube mate to ask, “does this look stupid or brilliant?” Interaction isn’t nearly as personal. Subtle facial expressions get distorted when frozen on screen or swallowed up by virtual backgrounds. (Why does our video always freeze at the exact moment we make our goofiest face?)

It leaves us to wonder what great ideas are slipping through the cracks. Another big concern is how working remotely has affected quality mentorship? Can new talent grow to their full potential without in-person guidance from their mentor?

McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, speculated what the office and work life might be like after COVID-19.

In their article, Reimagining the office and work life after COVID-19, they raised some similar questions.

“Will corporate cultures and communities erode over time without physical interaction? Will planned and unplanned moments of collaboration become impaired? Will there be less mentorship and talent development? Has working from home succeeded only because it is viewed as temporary, not permanent?”

On the flip side, their research showed a hefty 80% of people surveyed reported they enjoyed working from home and 69% claimed to be more productive or as productive at home compared to the office. Avoiding long commutes and a better work/life balance also contribute to a happier work force and a better culture.

So how have all these factors changed the creative process?

The basic exchange of ideas has changed forever. Remote collaboration is as commonplace as a conversation in the hallway. Maybe not as spontaneous, but just as likely to happen and just as necessary. For the most part, it works. Meeting with a teammate in the comfort of your living room, dressed in your comfiest sweatpants has a lot of advantages over sitting in a conference room sipping on a coffee you’ve been nursing since 8 am.

In general, when creative people are in their comfort zone, they tend to be more prolific.

The biggest casualty of the hybrid system will be spontaneity. Many creative teams depend on unplanned or unexpected stimulus to generate ideas. The ability to instantly get someone’s attention and bounce an idea off them is hard to replicate with a Zoom, chat or text. The human exchange is undeniably at its best when we are in person.

One interesting side effect of working with remote partners is bigger emphasis on trust. There’s less “over the shoulder” collaboration going on. We do our part and hand it over to the next contributor. And then we must TRUST them to do their part without our “back-seat-creativity” and directions. The ability to have some one-on-one time with an idea can be a powerful and liberating creative experience. That only happens when you can truly separate yourself from your teammates. Working from home gives you that kind of control.

Having worked as a creative professional for more than half my life, I’ve seen big changes in the industry before. In the late 80s and early 90s, the desktop computer scared the heck out of a lot of creative people. They worried about being replaced by machines or were terrified that learning new, high-tech skills to operate computers was beyond their grasp. In the end, we figured out that the computer was yet another tool for us to use, not some Matrix style horror coming to replace humanity. We adapted.

So, now what?

Should we adapt or strive to return to the office? Is the hybrid approach really the answer for happier, more productive employees? It’s a 2-sided argument that will take time to sort out. For now, we should concentrate on perfecting new processes for our most important interactions. For creative work to be done right, collaboration may be the most important process. So, it deserves our most diligent efforts to get it right. That can be best achieved with input from the entire team as well as advice from outside the creative department.

Stay flexible, and remember the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Change is the only constant.”