Don't stifle creativity: Let app designers and architects work from home

Work-at-home policies save organizations significant money, yet some still resist the idea that creative IT pros can produce more at home than at the office. Here are reasons to make the change.

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About four years ago, I signed on with a human resources company for an 18-month SharePoint deployment. The company has offices in 40 countries. The deployment included SharePoint servers in four data centers around the world, with more than 20,000 users.

They gave me an office at headquarters, but strongly urged me (and everyone else) to work from home when possible. I quickly got on board with this, realizing that my work was faster and better when it happened in my home rather than at the office.

The ingredients of creation

Working from home is not always ideal for a number of reasons. For instance, if you need to interact with people frequently, and those people are not well-known to you, personal contact is best: We do better communicating with strangers when faces, voices, and body language are part of the communication. But in my situation, the job was to design a deployment that juggled a lot of mitigating factors.

Creativity often thrives in solitude for several reasons. To begin with, creativity requires concentration, which is more easily achieved when there are few distractions, or when the background noise is the user's selection. In any workplace, the distractions are often random and not selected by the user. You can always put on headphones and listen to The Beatles, but that's a halfway measure at best.

It's also commonly true that inspiration is a very personal thing. When the task is to come up with new ideas or innovative variations, we often draw on our surroundings for cues. In the office, we can have a Star Wars calendar on the desk or a Doctor Who sonic screwdriver in the drawer, but that's not the same as having our personal library or our Pink Floyd concert DVDs at our fingertips.

Environment matters. Here are some reasons why working from home may be best for the IT professional who is called upon to be creative.

The Muse has a mind of her own

Author Robert Ludlum said that writing popular novels is a business -- you can't wait for inspiration to strike, you just have to sit down and do it. But innovation isn't always there when we call upon it -- sometimes it waits until after supper to strike, and sometimes it hits at 2:00 AM. When that happens, and when the idea is the one we've been waiting for, it's handy to have our work laid out for us and waiting for that missing piece in our home office.

We do need to work with our team members during agreed-upon hours, but innovation happens when it happens. Working at home leaves us ready for it.

Personal comfort goes a long way

Picasso was famous for dining with friends in the evening, then returning home and beginning his painting at midnight. Why? It felt right. Creative, innovative work flourishes when personal comfort is at its peak -- or, put another way, when discomfort and distractions are minimized. Certainly we can't all do our design work at midnight, but it helps to work in jeans and a t-shirt and have the air conditioning set the way we like it.

Chat works just fine with your team

Contact with others is important, but faces, handshakes, and body language matter most with those we don't know well. Our team members are, presumably, familiar to us -- and when that's true, communicating via chat works just fine. Many companies have deployed social media for this purpose, and there are numerous free chat platforms available. Or, there's always the telephone.

At home, no one can hear you scream

Finally, innovation can sometimes be a deeply frustrating process. There are times when the Muse just doesn't sing, and deadlines loom. When you need that Great Idea that just won't come, and the clock is ticking, it's occasionally healthy to blow off steam, which is easy to do at home -- watch any three consecutive scenes from Die Hard or The Dark Knight. At the office? Not so easy.

Final thoughts

It's unfortunate that popular culture doesn't fully grasp how much creative effort goes into IT systems and apps -- people tend to think all the creativity is in Palo Alto. Not so, of course.

Tweaking the environment to let innovation flow where it needs to often requires a few extra steps. Encourage your company to take them.

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By Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...