a year into the pandemic

Over a year after a pandemic abruptly eliminated our collaborative workspaces, we explore how our physical and social surroundings affect our capacity for creativity and offers advice on how to stay inspired within the constraints of our current stay-at-home environments.

april 28, 2021

brands - content - trends - marketing

by: chelsea mills

exploring the effects of your environment on creativity and productivity.

As human beings, everything and everyone we come in contact with each day ultimately has a cause and effect on our behaviour, perception, choices and cognition. This relationship between our physical surroundings and how we think, feel and act (by definition, the study of Environmental Psychology) has a significant impact on our well-being and output as people.

Prior to March 2020, many of us had become accustomed to a certain freedom of choice about the environments around us: what city to travel to, what restaurant to eat out at, which gallery to visit, what concert to attend, and who to spend time with. On some level, we had control over how to diversify our stimulation in order to maximize our happiness. Then the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. What happened next, we’re all too aware of. The world shut its proverbial doors, cutting us off from the fluid access to activities and people we’ve traditionally sought out to enhance our own personal worlds with. Self-isolation and stay-at-home orders meant that diversity of stimulation flatlined, fast. Even the vast landscape of the internet is now a personalized sea of sameness, thanks to sophisticated algorithms serving us exactly what we want to see, read and hear. This is a scary thought when you consider that creativity—the ability to put together ideas in new, useful combinations to solve problems—is augmented when we are exposed to new environments, situations and ideas.

One of the reasons I loved going to an office each day, pre-pandemic, is that it was a constant source of inspiration. Our shared desk pods and open concept rooms contributed to the collaborative environment, and the buzz of productivity could be felt as coworkers tossed around ideas and built each other up. Our work space, like many others, had been socially engineered to stimulate encounters that spark innovation. In essence, the employees of Mint were absorbed in a creative space five days a week that was specifically designed to positively impact our collective performance and generate ideas. Then of course, without warning, offices across the globe, including ours, were sent to work from home. All those thoughtfully designed environments now sit unused, as the stay-at-home workforce has adjusted to virtual life.

Given that our physical and social surroundings correlate to our output, how has the pandemic and stay-at-home orders affected our relationship to creativity and productivity? How are people closing the “inspiration gap” when you’re not really supposed to leave the house?

Keen to learn more about maximizing the output of creativity and productivity in a personal environment that currently has a stimulation diversity gap, I looked to the remote working experts and creative office expats for suggestions to emulate. The good thing is, we now have control over our work environment—it can be what you want it to be. (That is, until the kids, cats or dogs roll in.)

get outside
(or at least let the outdoors in)

Fun fact: interacting with nature decreases stress, stimulates the senses and relieves attention fatigue, leading to increased creativity. Plus, it’s always changing, so from day to day your experience will differ more outside than it will inside. Of course, back-to-back meeting days happen and sometimes those mid-afternoon walks just aren’t possible. WFH experts have a suggestion: bring the outside, inside, by designing your workspace to imitate elements of the outdoors. Introduce greenery through plants. Open a window to let the breeze roll in. And lighting is key: studies have shown that exposure to natural light can increase productivity up to 40%. Try placing your desk in front of a window to maximize on that Vitamin D. No access to sunlight in your WFH situation? Recreating natural light through artificial lighting achieves a similar effect (just make sure its “blue light enriched” and at least 17,000k).

create boundaries

In this virtual world, the lines between our professional and personal lives are more blurred than ever. Many of us no longer have rituals, like leaving the office at the end of a long day, that signal to our brains we can switch tracks from office to home. We have entered into an era where we work at home, and home at work. However, without that physical demarcation line between work and home, burnout—a killer of creativity and productivity—is a real risk. Experts suggest combating this by creating physical boundaries in your home; namely, designating a space for work (and work only) that is distinct from the rest of your living space. That could be a repurposed closet, a corner of a room, or a makeshift workstation that comes out each morning and gets put away each evening. Whatever works in your living quarters, respect that space as your office.

switch up your environment

The above being said, creativity feeds on difference. Working in exactly the same spot, in the same sweatpants, staring at the same walls day in and day out can put our brains on autopilot, stifling our ability to ideate novel creative solutions. Try switching things up form time to time: move your desk setup to a different room or floor (simply moving to a different part of a room does the trick, too). Listen to background music that makes you happy. Light candles or use essential oils in a variety of scents to introduce new smells. Add to your space in ways that spark tiny triggers of joy and interest, like integrating items that move or inspire you into your workspace. Shifting out of your routine setting in even the tiniest of ways can make a surprisingly big impact.

As another great resource to support our continued stay-at-home journey, check out an article my colleague Anandi Vara wrote on Mental Health and the Digital Age, with some fantastic tips on stepping away from the screens, and receiving your information in a variety of ways to diminish virtual burnout and stress.

For many of us, this past year has been one of monotony. It’s easy to feel like creativity has been another casualty of Covid-19 and until we have widespread access to a vaccine, this abbreviated way of living remains relatively status quo. However, crises can be a benefactor of innovation. And most certainly, there are ways to take the positive aspects of being locked down (yes, there are a few), and optimize for your own creativity. We have never experienced a way of life that has come so without an established playbook, that opens us up to new ways of receiving information, thinking, and considerations on a macro level. That in itself is an expression of creativity. So as we continue to ride the waves of Covid, we need to continue to safeguard our environments to feed creativity, and be willing to explore the boundaries of our own (albeit limited) worlds right now.