Creativity In A Shelter-In-Place, Zoom World

Jeff Tarran
Creativity In A Shelter-In-Place, Zoom World
Life Is Feeling Very Tactical Right Now

Tom is a Senior Data Solutions Manager at Gunderson Direct. In our office, I have to pass his desk to get to the kitchen area. We both get in on the early side when my need for coffee is acute, so I’m passing his desk on a mission a couple of times a day, at least.

On many days I stop by his desk. Informal chatting in a quiet office — and over the last couple of years I’ve learned that Tom is a father of two young girls, enjoys cooking, knows a good joke* or two, and is a certified SCUBA diver, among other things. After a couple of minutes, the conversation might easily turn to work topics, from the high level, “yeah, we’re busy,” to a client-specific solution he might be toiling over or is excited to have solved.

I like Tom. We’ve developed a rapport that makes working together that much more interesting and fun, in addition to a subtle goodwill toward each other’s success.

Needless to say, those conversations haven’t happened in several months. And I miss them.

Tom and I still talk plenty — in video meetings that usually include other staff and clients. No doubt about it, video meetings are engaging and efficient for dealing with tactical issues. We spend a set time to discuss and conclude a topic before clicking “leave meeting.” Isn’t that what we wanted when meetings were live?

How Creativity Gets Stymied

So, what’s the issue? I think creativity is suffering. Not just the big idea type of creativity we strive for as a direct mail agency, but the general problem-solving, transference-of-knowledge-between-clients type of creativity.

Mark Schaefer said it right in a recent blog:

I’m worried about the state of creativity. Breakthrough ideas come from serendipity … chance meetings, attending conferences, traveling to new places. When we are spending most of our time on Zoom and Netflix during a pandemic, is the world in a creativity desert? Ideas happen at the water cooler and at the breaks.

I share his concern. Our worlds are smaller, our chance meetings and contacts fewer. In my pre-COVID work world, I enjoyed those few minutes bantering with Tom. But, I also stood a chance of learning something when the conversation turned to business topics outside of an agenda-driven meeting.

Online Meetings Can Replace In-Person Meetings… To A Point

The productivity benefits of Zoom can also overlook the issue of generating true, honest discussion. My brother is a psychologist whose clients are dealing with drug and alcohol dependency issues. His counseling sessions have moved to Zoom and his patients really like it. Why? Beyond saving time driving to a clinic, he thinks it’s also because it’s easier for them to hide their true feelings and issues when they are staring into a camera and he is just a head in a box on a screen.

Most communication is non-verbal: body language, facial expression, gestures, nuances in tone of voice. Many of those clues aren’t visible or are flattened on a screen, so it’s harder to read people and react to how you think they feel, rather than solely what you hear them say. I think that last meeting went well, but is there something else I might have caught if we were in person?

Video conferencing and phone meetings have been around for a long time. And there are some clients I really enjoy working with who I have yet to meet in person. That’s OK, but not all the time and not with everyone, especially the people I work with every day to solve complex business issues.

Although the latency isn’t too bad with Zoom and Google Meet, there is still a delay that dampens the flow of ideas and the natural rhythm of conversation that are so important for brainstorming and group problem solving. And of course you can only hear one person at a time. Some of my favorite memories of group creative sessions are the ones where everyone is shouting out their ideas at the same time and somehow you’re hearing all of them at once and reacting to the fizzy excitement of it.

Online social meet-ups help approximate the old ways of social interaction, but even the most casual of them don’t replace the conversation that happens over a sandwich in the lunchroom.

It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for working from home. (Is anyone missing their commute?) But I feel a loss that is both personal and professional when everyone I meet with sits in a square on my computer. And I miss Tom’s jokes.

* Here is one of my favorites: What do you call it when a chameleon doesn’t change colors? A reptile disfunction.


Tom has over 20 years’ experience in Direct Marketing with a focus on data and analytics—both client and agency side, B2B, and B2C. His expertise extends to the entire campaign lifecycle, from strategy, planning, and execution, through reporting and analysis. Tom gets his kicks sifting through results for insights, test, and optimization ideas that can be applied from one campaign to the next to continually build client DM success.

With two busy daughters, Tom doesn’t have much free time. When he can, he enjoys sailing, reading, and keeping up with the march of technology and the media.

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Jeff Tarran

Jeff has been with Gunderson Direct since 2017 and has played a significant role in the growth of the agency’s client base while helping to manage growth across agency departments.

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