Remote Creativity

These are challenging times.

For some of us, it is a matter of life and death. The rest of us are just trying to get used to a new routine, which is not even a routine because it keeps changing and, at least until now in most countries, escalating.

One of the changes many of us are facing these days is the transition to remote work. Admittedly, this is not the most pressing challenge or the most significant change we face. But in the context of maintaining our professionalism and effectiveness, such a transition does require some thought. It is not just a matter of taking your laptop and connecting to your data and colleagues remotely. For teams who are used to sharing the same space and intimately working together, such a change is far from being trivial.

During the past week, I came across quite a few questions on how to maintain the ability of a team to produce joint creative work while working remotely. Team members find themselves in front of their laptops, either working in isolation or waiting for a remote meeting to start. On the surface, this might seem like the essence of work, but there is considerable value in spicing up the day also with unstructured, unplanned communication — accidental encounters and random bits of discussions before a meeting starts, or by the coffee machine, or on the way to the office. When our team is not sharing any physical space, we need to proactively build and maintain a setup that will allow this kind of communication.

The unusual and radical situation we are all facing raises challenges that inspire us to think of ideas that can help us improve our lives (in this case, our professional lives) long after the crisis will be behind us. So, how can we promote unstructured and unplanned communication — communication that will surprise us and enable unexpected fusions — when working remotely, physically isolated from the team?

Here are a few ideas.

Create Opportunities for Informal Engagements

Formal meetings tend to have a structured agenda. Even if you don’t define a detailed agenda, the issue you expect to discuss is planned and communicated in advance. It is safe to assume that soon after a meeting starts, the defined topic or agenda will be the primary focus of everyone attending, and for a good reason. If you are going to invest the time of a group of people asking them to participate in a meeting, it better be focused and oriented toward achieving a predefined goal. Amazon’s meeting culture goes even further than that and calls for having a written memo (not a presentation) sent before the meeting to allow everyone to get familiar with the details before the meeting starts.

All this is super important if you wish to have effective meetings. But when formal meetings are pretty much the only opportunity for face to face (even if remote) communication, something gets lost.

When you are working with others in the same physical location, whether it is in an open-space setup or in smaller, private offices with public spaces between them, you have numerous opportunities for informal communication. We might not be conscious of it most of the time, but the random encounters we have during the day feed us with bits of information, insights, and ideas we might never come across otherwise. On top of the pure psychological benefit of having such social interactions, the inflow of unexpected input from other people fills our mind-pantry with ingredients that can be essential in shaping creative ideas and solutions sometime in the future. The beauty of such encounters is that their agenda and content cannot be planned. It is the alleged arbitrariness of what you might experience and observe during such an encounter that makes these unplanned communication opportunities so powerful. And the less structured the engagement is, the higher its potential is. If, while taking a cup of coffee, you accidentally meet someone from a different project or a discipline you don’t usually interface, you can open the door to a new universe. If you explore it, even briefly, you might find amazing (and useful) stuff to collect — information and ideas that can serve you in your project and your domain.

Nothing can fully replace the randomness of such accidental encounters. But between running into someone unexpectedly near the coffee machine and having a formal meeting with predefined agenda, there’s a variety of options to promote informal communication when working remotely. Strange as it may sounds, we need to plan to be surprised.

How about planning joint breaks? Sounds funny when everyone is working remotely and can basically have a break whenever they want. But if you think of it, you can emulate the gathering by the coffee machine by setting some time for having a cup of coffee together… remotely. Oh, and why not having lunch together… remotely?

Sure, this is not the same as physically sharing the same table or walking with your coffee together, but it is a lot. Creating such a virtual space for people to meet and share anything that comes to mind, without moderation or predefined agenda, is super easy, and its impact, especially for people who are up until now, worked in the same location, is enormous.

And while we are at it, you don’t need to limit such planned-unplanned encounters to the scope of a team or a group. You can create open online meetings with limited “seats” and share the link across the organization. This will increase the element of surprise and the randomness of the encounter.

Share a Whiteboard

Imagine an open space with a wall covered by a huge whiteboard. A blank board, just like a blank piece of paper, is an excellent platform for ideas to pop associatively (compared to a more structured medium such as a textual document or a structured diagram). But this whiteboard is huge, and it is nothing but blank because it is shared by the entire team. Imagine that anyone in the group can approach it and sketch or write down some ideas, whether it is related to the project or just a random insight. Imagine this board is infinite: you never have to erase it. With time this huge whiteboard becomes a collective mind-pantry — a place to informally store insights and ideas. Most of them might never be used, but some might just connect at the right moment to form a new, bigger idea.

What might be barely achievable in the physical world (because no whiteboard is really infinite) is trivial in the digital world. At the same time, in this new realm, the physical distance between team members becomes a non-issue. There are many online whiteboards solutions, some with fancier features, and some are simpler. No matter which one you choose, the only thing that matters is that the application you select allows collaborative editing and that it is infinite. With such a solution, no one gets in the way of others, and anyone can explore the entire board if they want to. A shared, infinite whiteboard might be hard to search and find your way through (depending on its features). But that’s really part of its magic. Unlike an indexed archived, such a board practically forces you to slow down and explore. Therefore the chances of coming up with a surprising piece of information or insight become significantly higher. In other words, it is a platform that enables and promotes fusions. And fusions are essential to practically any creative idea.

Learn Together

In recent years, online learning platforms are thriving. And in times like the one we are experiencing now, they become a vital tool in maintaining our professional fitness. Most online learning platforms are designed to be used anytime and from anywhere. And this, in turn, implies learning alone. Online meetups or just researching a topic using random resources on the Web often means solo work as well.

A great way to intensify the learning experience is to share it with others. There are at least two ways to do that. The first is to create a learning group in which you take a course (or explore a topic) together. Apart from increasing the sense of working together as a team and helping each other, learning together exposes everyone to different perspectives and insights.

Another option is to learn a topic and then use your new knowledge to teach other group members. When you are teaching something you’ve learned, you are, in fact, going through another, deeper learning cycle. But more important to the context of creativity, with this approach, there’s a good chance you will come across questions you haven’t thought of. This can be an even more substantial experience than just learning together.

Play. Together.

Last but not least, one of the most essential activities in the context of both creativity and social engagement is playing. Creativity and playfulness are tightly coupled, and when it comes to increasing your collective creativity, playful team activities have an even more significant impact.

The challenge of playing together when working remotely is real. When every team member has a different schedule, and most of the time, you don’t see each other face-to-face, playing together — a meaningful play that is — is not trivial.

If you are already familiar with seempli, you already know that the vast collection of creativity games and challenges can be played practically anywhere. What you might be less aware of is the fact that almost all the activities in seempli can be played together as a group, and most of them can be easily adapted to a remote setup. Even when the schedule of team members is not synched, you can play with seempli on top of any social platform you are using at work. Sharing the creative challenges and the insights you come up with doesn’t just promote engagement and team building — it becomes a collective act of creativity. Each insight will inspire other team members and will often affect their insights next. A game of seempli on top of a social platform can quickly turn into a collective beehive buzzing with creativity. Recreating this notion later when facing real-world challenges, becomes quite natural.

Whether you are forced to work these days remotely, or you are part of a remote-first team, creating a space for nurturing and applying creativity is critical. Informal engagements, a collaborative free-form medium, and learning and playing opportunities, all work at two levels. They boost team creativity as they enable the fusion of ideas and using the collective brain-power of the team. But they also increase the creativity of each individual in the team because they expose every team member to multiple points of view, opinions, assumptions, and bits of information. With each such new ingredient, we enrich our individual mind-pantry and increase the chance of coming up with a creative idea that will take advantage of this abundance.

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