Too often, I hear someone say they’re just not creative—as if creativity were a rare quality granted solely to a small bucket of “creatives” among us.
That’s too narrow a way of thinking about creativity. Creativity doesn’t just involve, as some people think, producing a work of art. It exists among people in every department, across job functions and levels.
In the workplace, creativity happens any time an employee thinks of a novel way to solve a problem—whether it’s improving the customer experience in some way or streamlining a cumbersome internal process. Thought of in this way, it’s clear that creativity is not just needed in some departments within a company—it’s a necessity for all. On my growth team, we work with thousands of WeWork employees around the globe to define what creativity means for them and to help them embed it into everything they do.
Why creativity is the skill of the future
According to the World Economic Forum, creativity will be the third-most-important skill for employees by 2020, behind complex problem-solving and critical thinking. In a report, it says, “With the avalanche of new products, new technologies, and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.” Research by LinkedIn also found that the top skill companies need is creativity. In addition, with automation forecasted to eliminate many repetitive jobs, humans will move up the value chain and carry out more thoughtful, creative work.
Companies looking to grow must tap into creative energy. It will become essential to driving business forward. Creative problem-solving will enable teams to generate innovation in the workplace in a multitude of ways—whether it’s finding new approaches to problems inherent to the business, developing new products or services to fill a hole in the market, or improving upon existing processes. Creativity will enable employees to devise ways to address their customers’ biggest challenges—while cutting costs and automating repetitive tasks.
How to build a creative culture—for all teams
Given the tight link between creativity and innovation, organizations and employees must rethink what it means to be creative. Each employee in every department can benefit from the power to become more engaged, productive, and to ultimately help drive business forward. At the base level, organizations can ensure the workplace is set up to encourage collaboration and innovative thinking. Here are four other ways leaders can encourage creativity among employees:
1. Free up time and mental constraints through technology and automation
Business leaders can choose to give employees space and time so they can focus on higher-value work—like spending time with customers to directly learn about their pain points, perhaps through a design thinking approach. Our growth team, for example, uses technology to reduce the amount of rote, administrative tasks our teammates are responsible for. When that happens, employees are no longer encumbered by the basics of their job. They are freed up to do more thoughtful work. We like to think of this as using technology to augment individuals.
2. Create a psychological safety net for employees to take risks
Employees need to hear that it’s okay to be creative—even if they fail. Since that often involves doing something new, there is inherent risk in it. Having a psychological safety net helps. That can be as simple as explicitly telling direct reports about the importance of creativity and encouraging them verbally to take calculated risks.
3. Implement programs that encourage creativity
Our team employs a 20 percent free-time program. Every week, employees can use 20 percent of their time to work on a project of their choice to develop a competency that’s tied to a company goal. This time allows them to brainstorm new ideas. It foments creativity by engaging employees outside their daily tasks and connecting them to colleagues they might not otherwise work with to craft potential solutions.
4. Foster an environment where creativity is recognized and rewarded
We have monthly meetings where we consistently spotlight team members who are working cross-functionally on challenging problems, as well as individuals who have made good use of the 20 percent free time. Rewarding employees makes them see that you’re serious when you tell them about the importance of creativity.
What does creativity look like in action?
For creativity to flourish, employees from all departments need to step outside their usual daily responsibilities. Novel solutions don’t come out of thin air. They come by following a process that emphasizes community and connections. By interacting with those who work in different functions and have different ways of thinking, employees can step out of their day-to-day, business-as-usual mindset to approach customer problems in new ways. Here is what that looks like for various teams across the business:
How sales teams can be more creative
Sales team are on the front line interacting with customers and prospects. They thus have valuable insight into how best to cater to customer needs and should be given the bandwidth and freedom to develop those solutions.
A company can give sales reps more time to engage with customers by reducing the amount of time they spend behind the scenes prepping for deals. Using technology such as streamlined customer-management software, organizations can help reps more easily research and vet prospects and record their work on a central platform. When they no longer have to do this repetitive work, reps have more time to engage with prospects and customers, listen to their issues, and flex their creative muscles to try to problem-solve. Those conversations may turn into new opportunities to work closer with the client—while benefiting the company’s bottom line.
Organizations can also make it easier for sales reps to focus on the storytelling aspect of their job. By providing teams with assets that they can configure to tell a compelling narrative, companies can help their reps be the most creative storytellers possible. Empowering teams with the authority, permission, and assets to tell good stories clarifies and solidifies the message the business is trying to communicate. In this way, creative—in the artistic sense of the word—assets can also make sales teams more efficient.
How frontline teams can be more creative
At WeWork, community teams are the ones on the ground opening and operating our roughly 500 office space locations. They need to be creative to consistently and effectively make the member experience delightful.
Our team examined data from hundreds of thousands of member move-ins around the world. We saw an opportunity to use technology to eliminate some of the administrative tasks of new member onboarding that community managers were responsible for, such as providing members information on how to use printers and get connected to the Wi-Fi.
We identified the top logistical issues. Then we put the answers to these issues on one technology platform that we gave members access to before they arrived on the first day of their membership. By handling the logistical to-do’s through technology, move-in day was a much more pleasant experience. Members could be mentally prepared and already set up on day one, so that they could hit the ground running and do their jobs.
For our frontline building and community managers, outsourcing administrative tasks to technology meant that they could focus on the creative work they love. They now had time to listen to members’ needs, plan events, and introduce members to each other—all in the name of creating an important sense of community within each building.
People think process is at odds with creativity, but, in fact, there’s a science and art to being creative. In order to make creativity part of business as usual, an organization should state the value of creativity and then regularly reinforce it so teams see that leadership recognizes and rewards it. If you can engineer an environment, establish a culture, and have a strategy, you can consciously give all teams the time and energy to be creative.
Sam Lee is the senior vice president of growth at WeWork. He is charged with enhancing the company’s customer acquisition, engagement, account-based growth, retention, and referrals through a combination of data-modeling and analytics, growth strategy and operations, new product development, and front-line sales and account management. Prior to joining WeWork, Sam was an executive in the consumer internet and financial services industries.