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Mark Hembree


How Does Work From Home Measure Up?

Is collaboration overrated?

Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2023 - 12:03

When I started working from home in 1998, it wasn’t by choice. I was writing for a major record label that decided—in so many words—that I was like a painting that didn’t go with the furniture. (Fine. Know what you get when you play New Age music backward? New Age music.)

My panic-stricken response to sudden unemployment was to send out as many resumes and job applications as I could and explore freelance prospects in my spare time—an exactly backward approach. When I sought freelance work in earnest and sent resumes in my spare time, business picked up.

Long before work from home (WFH) became a well-known acronym, I enjoyed padding down the hall in my slippers and dealing with clients from the comfort of my home office. But when the novelty wore off, I felt my creativity dimming. I needed to hear voices that weren’t just in my head—so I began taking onsite temp work just to get out and be around other people. Sure enough, when an unlikely gig through Paladin led to a full-time position with a marketing firm, I found myself back in a corporate office.

That was in 2000. In April 2020, my employer’s offices evacuated and I found myself working from home again—and as the pandemic grew and business shrank, my position was eliminated. I was a freelancer again.

But this wasn’t 2000. Twenty years later, via the internet and social media, I could sit in front of any computer and hear all the voices I wanted (as well as many I could do without). Any creative dry spell or writer’s block I suffered wouldn’t be for lack of input or other random points of view.

Now, as the pandemic subsides—or as people grow tired of it—many employers are calling workers back to the office. Not everyone wants to go.

Has the work changed?

Old guys like me have known since the dawn of desktop publishing (I’ll call it the ’90s) that we could be sitting at our own computers, in our own home, doing the same work. We also knew that was little more than a pipe dream. Management would never go for it.

Then came the global lockdown. Often, the transition to working from home went more easily than anyone imagined it would as everyone adjusted to the “new normal.” Now, many maintain that working from home is normal and no longer “new.”

Others—mainly management—believe productivity and creativity suffer from lack of supervision and in-person collaboration. But creative pros may rightly ask, “Says who?” How are productivity and creativity measured?

‘Weak ties’ and creativity

In an 18-month-long study and a paper with eight authors, researchers at MIT’s Senseable City Lab found that lack of “co-location” (that is, being in the same place at the same time) “caused the loss of more than 4,800 weak ties—ties between distant parts of the social system that enable the flow of novel information.” The study found that less face time and collaboration impedes the creative process.

However, the outlook wasn’t entirely gloomy. The research team found these ties could be “regenerated” by a return to a hybrid work model, while conceding that employers may find a balance between remote work and office time “optimal.”

Measuring creativity

Any “creative” who has suffered through enough business meetings can tell you that baloney is often the main course served. People strive for happy stats. Clicks or customer responses may be indicators, but they rarely tell the whole story. “Readership is up 100 percent!” doesn’t mean much if you previously had 30 readers.

Still, you do have to start somewhere to assess the work—and the executives in the C suite will no doubt demand an explanation in return for issuing paychecks. But, as you can surmise from the following (just a sample of the myriad methods available), hard measurements are no sure thing.

A U.K.-based business analyst and cryptocurrency expert, Jay Leonard, suggested several key performance indicators (KPIs) to track creative teams. Acknowledging the difficulties of subjectivity (Manet or Monet? Beatles or Stones?), Leonard warns that firm-but-easy measurements, such as clicks and conversions, can be short-sighted. He recommends compiling several other factors, such as critical acclaim or awards, skills growth, and overall quality of the work, to consider alongside the hard numbers.

“Copywriters, designers, and the ‘idea folks’ who make up creative teams are rarely data-driven in nature,” he says. “That’s the job of the marketing folks and data crunchers.”

Among the KPIs Leonard suggests are:
• Satisfaction ratings via stakeholder surveys
• Time spent on reworks: If this amount is up, investigate and find out why.
• Cost vs. revenue: While difficult to calculate, it’s a number that travels well within the company to justify creative efforts.
• Trackable quality metrics: Pick your poison. Number of bugs in a website? Page-load speed? Eye-tracking data? The measuring tool depends on the project. Were readers bored by a topic, or did something about the website design get in their way?
• Efficiency: “Sure, it’s important to be creative, but you also have to ship work,” Leonard says. His suggested efficiency measures include lead time per project, estimated vs. actual project time, and estimated vs. actual project cost.

Leonard recommends creating a master list or spreadsheet to track projects, and using project management software to centralize and analyze information, including project type, clients, team assignments, time from project initiation to completion, and the number of approvals and revisions required. All of the above can serve as a songbook for the creative choir.

Other views

Adam W. Morgan, executive creative director at Adobe, wields more than two decades of experience in creativity, strategy, and storytelling. His book, Sorry Spock, Emotion Drives Business (Morgan James Publishing, 2019), quantifies creativity and design with hard science.

In an article on his website, “How should companies measure creativity?” Morgan interviewed Tyler England, then vice president and head of customer and marketing insights/strategy at Hewlett Packard. England described a balanced approach.

“When measuring creative ideas, the debate is often around which system should weigh heavier,” he says, “the more automatic and emotional system or the more rational and deliberate system.”

In any event, even with reams of data, assessing creative ideas gets fuzzy. “Stakeholders often want a definitive answer on a certain piece of creative,” England says. “They assume that because we conduct a research project, we should have all the answers. But the true answer is that it depends... people don’t always respond to research in a rational manner. They hide their emotions.

“In order to get more clear answers, we have to nail both the System 1 and System 2 thinking of our customers,” he says. “System 1 helps with engagement and memory, while System 2 helps translate it all into action and purchase. And arguably, System 1, or the emotional system, is increasingly the gatekeeper to System 2.”

England believes the best research companies use multiple measurement methods to understand both systems. “Their tests are designed to isolate the creative, rather than throw it directly into an in-market A/B test,” he says, “which can muddy the results with other executional and targeting factors.”

Metrics are great but be here by 8

How many tests do owners and managers conduct before insisting people return to their desks? Never mind: With or without creative comparisons, many bosses have had it with all this.

Microsoft is among the best-known companies calling for an end to the WFH era, with its researchers pointing to data that indicate inferior creative results from off-premises. A study of more than 61,000 U.S. workers from December 2019, before the pandemic, to June 2020 indicated that WFH resulted in employees being “more siloed in how they communicate” and hindered interdepartmental communications and ideas being shared. (However, Microsoft and many other companies also found employees were working more hours from home.)

In February 2022, Microsoft announced it’s reopening plan, effective Feb. 28, 2022, calling as many as 57,000 Washington state workers to return to its offices in Bellevue, Seattle, and the company’s Redmond headquarters. Workers were required to be in the office at least 50 percent of the time unless they had special permission from their supervisors.

However, in June 2022, The Seattle Times reported that the company was hedging on that ultimatum, stating that “equilibrium” might not occur until sometime in 2023.

Not all companies agree

Microsoft is hardly the only corporation that wants its workers back where they used to be. Elon Musk has famously disparaged WFH and people “pretending to work,” insisting his employees be in the office at least 40 hours a week or resign.

But other companies have seen and embraced the changes of the past two years. In his article “WFH or back to the office: Where does creativity thrive?” Matthew Keegan asks several agencies how they want to proceed.

“What we have seen through the pandemic is that not only did productivity and creativity not get compromised, they in fact thrived, with some of the best work coming out from our Dentsu APAC network over the last three years,” says Yvonne Tan, group HR director, Southeast Asia, Dentsu International.

“The working model has evolved, whether Elon Musk likes it or not," says Thomas McMullan, creative director at Digitas Australia. “We’ve rediscovered that employees are people, and—strangely enough—that means forcing them into an office for a third of their lives might not be optimal for everyone.”

On the other hand, Craig Mapleston, CEO of VCCP Singapore, says, “We are an agency that works together in our office, supported by working from home. Not the other way around. This means we expect the team to work from the office more than they work from home.

“Creative briefing, ideation, presentations, and feedback sessions are all better done together in person... WFH is undoubtedly a hindrance to great creative work,” he says. “The spark that great collaborators can elicit in each other is much harder to ignite virtually.”

However, Lesley John, managing director of Virtue APAC, says, “The open office concept that was intended for interaction and effective collaboration has been proven not to work, yet it is the way offices are now designed by default.”

About collaboration

During my career, collaboration has become a buzz word among architects, office designers, and, in my experience, companies eager to save money by turning people out of offices and putting them in a single room full of cubicles where presumably they can think great thoughts, collaborate, and share their brilliance.

Except that’s not how it usually works. I don’t need to hang out at the water cooler to get ideas. Furthermore, in my line of work—writing and editing—collaboration is overrated. Sure, I still consult co-workers, pursue team goals, and share ideas. But it’s not the same as meeting with a marketing team to brainstorm a new campaign. Aside from daily communications and interdepartmental get-togethers, my line of work usually takes place in solitude. Writers and editors don’t sit around the office kibitzing like Buddy and Sally on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” (“Say! That’s a great place for a comma!”)

In fact, for writers, editors, and graphic designers, a “collaborative environment” is a distraction. Laughter and repartee have their place, but not in the middle of writing a sentence or juggling a tricky layout. Interruptions are normally not inspiring.

As Keegan wrote, “Creativity favors flexibility.” To some companies, that may mean employees adjusting to their provided space. To some employees—and I’m with this gang—flexibility means being productive in the best ways possible, within or without the office.

As for productivity, research indicates it increases with WFH. That should be a no-brainer. Strictly speaking—if you count employees’ hours and what they spend them doing—workers who don’t have to commute will be more productive. Managers may try to relieve their “productivity paranoia” by monitoring remote workers more closely or calling them back to the office whether or not they’re willing. But cracking down will probably damage trust more than increase output—and possibly induce a resignation or “quiet quitting,” another business term given to us by the pandemic.

Work is work, and teams must meet. But after all the input, creativity is most often a solitary pursuit. You can find new ideas anywhere. Turning them into something that will be useful to other people means buckling down, concentrating, and doing a job no one else can do for you.

When it comes to that last mile (at least before client review), creatives go it alone.


About The Author

Mark Hembree’s picture

Mark Hembree

As an associate editor with Quality Digest, Mark Hembree brings a technical writing/editing background to covering the quality control/quality assurance industry. A former professional musician and longtime journalist, he has been a staff writer for marketing companies and an editor for sports and hobby magazines. He’s also written a book about his music days, On the Bus With Bill Monroe: My Five-Year Ride With the Father of Blue Grass (University of Illinois Press, 2022). 


How Does Work From Home Measure Up?

As I read the part in the article about KPI's and hybrid work, I couldn't help wonder that one of the objections for working from home is that management would actually have to know what the individual is actually doing, especially if no KPI's existed to measure their process outputs.