Google famously allows employees to devote 20 percent of their workweek to pursuing their own creative projects and endeavors. Some of these unstructured hours have yielded new tools and apps that are now used by millions (Google Maps is but one example). Yet encouraging creativity and leadership development in your coworkers can have real benefits – whether their results are sellable or not. “The opportunity to do creative work might boost employee morale even if the process doesn’t necessarily result in the next big profitable idea,” Jack Goncalo, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Fast Company.
To study the impact that creative work has on employees’ psychological well-being, Goncalo and his team built upon research that showed that the burden of keeping a secret can make physical distances seem even greater. In a recent study, one group of participants was told to keep a secret and then throw a beanbag. Another group was asked to keep a secret and then engaged in a bit of creative work before lobbing the beanbag. Researchers found that the group that exercised its creativity overthrew the beanbag far less – as if the uplifting effects of being creative helped balance out the psychological burden of holding onto the secret.
“We considered the possibility that engaging in creative work—because it permits wide ranging exploration of new ideas – might actually feel emotionally liberating,” Goncalo said. That insight can be crucial for business leaders looking to boost the morale of coworkers who are stuck doing mundane, repetitive tasks or who engage in work that carries a heavy psychological toll, such as lawyers or social workers.
A team of organizational psychologists at San Francisco State University found that creativity doesn’t need to happen on the clock to improve an employee’s work performance and well-being. In the study of 341 employees, the team found that people who engage in creative pursuits – such as writing short stories or playing video games – in their spare time reported better recovery from work stress and were more likely to help their coworkers solve problems during crisis.
Of course, mandating that employees write short stories in their free time would probably backfire. “One of the main concerns is that you don’t want to have someone feel like their organization is controlling them, especially when it comes to creative activities, because intrinsic motivation is part of that unique experience that comes with creative activity,” organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman told Business News Daily.
But there are ways to encourage creativity whether it’s a part of the team’s work tasks or not: Consider offering yoga classes during lunch breaks or coordinating an after-work film outing. Encourage everyone to personalize and decorate their workspaces. Host an art show for employees to display their creative works. At Zappos, for instance, the quarterly four-hour company meeting includes a chance for every employee to flex their creative talents, whether that means playing a musical instrument, doing an improve skit, or dancing in front of the entire company.
“It may be perceived as all fun and games, but this production also has a huge team-building component that requires employees from all departments to collaborate and organize,” Zappos content developer Mig Pascual wrote in US News and World Report. And the benefits of that creativity will extend far beyond the last curtain call.