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In a report dating back to the pandemic, 80% of people reported increasing pressure to be productive rather than creative at work.
In fact, since the shift to remote work in 2020, countless studies, articles, and blog posts have been published about how to be more productive, how to increase team productivity, and (my personal favorite) why an advantage, in particular, he has died. The headlines say:
- “RIP ping pong…“
- “No offense to the ping pong table, but…“
Suddenly, the companies were mocking the ping pong table. Customers don’t want to pay for it, they said. Employees want better benefits, they said. But here’s the thing: The ping pong table was never an employee benefit. That “tah-tap, tah-tap” was the soundtrack to our working days. The background we used to brainstorm, brainstorm and strategize creatively, write smart copy, and design killer visuals. It’s a buzz that can’t be recreated on a Zoom call.
I’ve spent my career (29 years so far) working with and for marketing agencies, and there’s one thing I know to be true: agency spaces were electric. They vibrated with the buzz of ideas, and that’s because we, the people at the agency, vibrated with the buzz of ideas. Creative breakthroughs were a daily occurrence because we worked in an environment that encouraged them.
The ping pong table represents creative energy. A game or two gives your mind something else to focus on so ideas can bubble to the surface. It’s the same reason you probably come up with your best ideas in the shower: you’re relaxed. Now that everyone is at a distance, there is no rumor. It’s a buzz that simply can’t be recreated on a Zoom call.
Productivity became the most pressing concern in the wake of Covid-19. But productivity is not the problem, the lack of creativity is. Consider that:
- 55% of respondents to a 2021 Owl Labs survey said they spent more hours working remotely than when they were in the office.
- A recent Deloitte study found that 77% of employees report feeling burned out in their current role.
- Nearly 70% of participants in my own (admittedly unscientific, but nonetheless revealing) LinkedIn survey revealed that creativity is more of a struggle than productivity.
We are working longer hours and it is taking its toll.
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Most of us who have spent years in the agency world are creative souls at heart. And while many of us probably started our careers in a creative role—writer, designer, videographer, illustrator, strategist—most don’t get to flex those creative muscles in the same way anymore. Our creative output is suffering, and we are starving for that creative energy.
In a world of remote work, how can we recreate it? Even marketing agencies have given in to the productivity debate. If you’re feeling a little empty, it’s time to make room for creativity.
1. Make idle time a “feature”
Arianna Huffington explained that during the industrial revolution, machines were created to minimize downtime. But as humans, our operating systems work differently. For us, “downtime is not a bug,” Huffington said, “it’s a feature.”
And downtime shouldn’t be synonymous with time looking at your smartphone. Cell phones make us evade a deeper connection with ourselves. Just before we have an “aha!” moment, our brain “blinks” This blink is a burst of alpha waves that allow us to focus inward and make connections between our ideas and the knowledge stored there. These light bulb moments usually happen when we are doing something passive (driving, showering, falling asleep).
In an agency environment, it’s the impromptu conversations that create these moments. It’s shooting Nerf hoops in the creative director’s office or hitting that little hollow ball back and forth. And those moments are harder to come by these days. Put down the phone and…
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2. Practice mindfulness
If you’re not creating and protecting a creative space, you’re cheating yourself and your agency by not bringing your best self to work every day. Slowing down allows us to think about ideas we hadn’t considered.
This kind of awareness isn’t something we can track in 15-minute increments at work. Our “hustle culture” rewards success at all costs. It glorifies multitasking and prioritizes deadlines. But when everything in your inbox is marked as urgent, when every client project is labeled “hot tip,” and when every account manager is competing for their client’s work is completed first, that’s when exhaustion occurs. We are burning the candle at both ends, skipping lunch and still not getting much done. To-do lists are not being crossed off; they are getting longer.
It’s time for agencies to embrace “slow work” instead of hyper-productivity. It’s a concept Cal Newport of The New Yorker calls “slow productivity,” and it’s intended to reduce the amount of work we’re responsible for in a given day.
After six straight months of working 10-hour days, eight of which consisted of Zoom calls, I finally bought into the idea. As the strategy director of a global content marketing agency, my calendar was overloaded with meetings. I informed my team that every other week would be a “quiet week”. I would only attend meetings that were absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I’d spend those weeks strategizing, writing, and quietly working on large-scale projects and client campaigns.
The first two days of that first quiet week were glorious. I was able to spend more time on thoughtful research. I questioned theories and sketched out strategic ideas. On day three, the emails and messages started. They all led with the same line: “I know it’s your quiet week, but…”
I had to train my team to know what they really needed me for and what meetings could go without me. And I had to train myself to say “no” to requests that weren’t critical to our business. You can do the same by following a rule…
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3. Block creative time
Block off your time in two-hour increments each day with notes about the client or project you’re working on. Not only does this signal to your team that you’re unavailable during these time periods, it also allows you to move from project to project without constant interruptions and helps you stay focused on a single task.
Let your team know you’re making a change so you have support. The model of billing every minute of time to be profitable is not only outdated and impractical, but also harmful to the health of employees and keeps talented professionals from moving on. Most importantly, by modeling this behavior, you also give permission to your team. And this is a vital change in office culture that can help you retain your most valuable employees at a time when many are looking to make a change.
Related: 12 Career Tips That Will Increase Company Retention
Agency managers: it’s up to us to change the model.
If you’ve been tracking your team’s time for years, it’s time to use that data to make smarter decisions and create a new model for the agency of the future. how will it be What will the soundtrack be? How can we scale and grow while improving profitability?
We haven’t lost all our creative abilities, we’ve just lost them. So, for the sake of agencies, and for the brands that rely on agencies to make it happen, let’s hope the ping-pong table roars again.