Many of the online HR conference sessions I’ve joined recently have been dominated by discussions around finding ways to make our remote workforce more productive and efficient. Yet while productivity matters, creativity often gets left out of that conversation. If creativity is discussed at all, it’s often seen as something that we’ve lost with the move to remote work because of the assumption that creativity is the output of in-person brainstorming sessions, with creativity being measured by the number of Post-its on meeting room walls.
But that’s a wrong assumption. We don’t have to be less creative when working remotely, or even when working from home—we can be more creative. By leveraging what’s unique about remote work—work from home in particular—we can boost our creativity, both individually and collectively. Here are five ways we can be more creative when working remotely and the tools to make it happen.
Remote work lets everyone contribute ideas
Let’s lose the cachet associated with in-person brainstorming sessions because most don’t work. Most become exercises in groupthink, with the ideas shared first, or by the loudest or most senior person in the room, dominating the discussion. Remote work can let us go beyond the standard approach to brainstorming by using brainwriting, a superior way of ideating.
During a brainwriting session, each team member individually creates their ideas, during or before the brainstorming session, without discussion. Put everyone on a Zoom call on mute for 10 minutes and have them sit heads-down and individually come up with some ideas and type them out on their PCs or drawing on tablets. Then, everyone shares their thoughts at the same time by pasting on a common platform—an online collaborative whiteboard like Mural, Miro, Zoom’s built-in whiteboard, or something as simple as a shared Word or PowerPoint document or Google Doc. The group then reviews all the ideas and discusses them and builds on them. This approach separates the divergent thinking (blue-sky thinking that emphasizes the number of ideas) and convergent thinking (narrowing down) phases of ideation, which often get mixed up in traditional brainstorming. Do the convergent thinking and voting on ideas after.
This brainwriting approach prevents the loudest person, first to speak, or most senior from dominating the discussion and stifling innovation. Sharing written ideas simultaneously lets the introvert shine and is fairer to team members whose first language may not be English. It is a more democratic approach because there is less social pressure to follow one person’s idea, so everyone contributes equally. And it is an approach to ideation that is perfect for remote collaboration.
Remote work tools give us superpowers
Collaborative whiteboard platforms and other digital tools give us new abilities and superpowers that we can’t use during an in-person ideation session.
Want to hash out an idea with that colleague who lives in a different city? Hop on a Zoom call rather than hopping on a plane.
Need to do a SWOT analysis, create a business model canvas, or map a customer journey? Online whiteboard tools often have built-in templates for these. Their output can be easily saved, edited, and shared.
Whatever platform you are working on, the odds are that it has a chat feature, another creativity superpower that remote work grants us. With chat, we have an extra channel to communicate, comment on ideas and build on them, and ask questions in a way that isn’t possible with in-person collaboration.
Chat logs, or even an entire remote collaboration session, can be recorded and reviewed by those who couldn’t join in live. This is a bonus when your remote work involves a global team, and time zone differences prevent members from joining in real-time.
Creativity is boosted by greater team diversity
All those tools and technology aren’t much use without the collective brainpower to come up with creative ideas in the first place. With remote work, we are no longer limited to the brainpower and creativity of the people in the room. We can bring in a more diverse range of collaborators from other parts of our organization—in the same city or a different country—or outside the organization. More diverse teams lead to more creativity, so remote work lets us tap into a new pool of expertise and creativity, which we couldn’t access when collaborating in-person.
The more people you collaborate with, the more ideas you will get, which are more likely to lead to a few truly genius insights. As double Nobel laureate Linus Pauling said, “If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.”
Access to better facilitators
Remote work allows us to not only access a greater range of talent. It lets us bring in the facilitators who can make or break an ideation session. Previously we were limited to having ideation sessions facilitated by our colleagues or by hiring a local outside facilitator. With remote work, we can bring in expert facilitators from across our organization or recruit from a bigger pool of external facilitators.
Looking outside your own team for a facilitator is always a good idea. Facilitators shouldn’t have skin in the game or a vested interest in an ideation session’s output. Plus, remote facilitation is a different skill set. Your colleague who is an ace in-person facilitator may not be able to pull it off remotely.
Let working from home inspire you
No matter how nice our worksites are, they are not ideal locations for inspiration and creativity, for the sudden “aha” moments we get when out for a walk or when taking a shower. When working from home, we have more chances for inspiration, even with noisy pets, kids, or partners. Think about how you are surrounded by the books you love, or your favorite arts, plants, pets, and family members. All of these can energize us and inspire us.
When not working in the office, we can easily head out for a walk, and nothing beats a sudden flash of creativity than a walk, surrounded by nature. Or go for a run, or yoga, or some other physical activity that is proven to boost creativity.
Quiet time to recharge is also easier when working from home. Suddenly sitting down for a 20-minute mindfulness session is much easier to pull off at home than in the middle of an open-concept office.
So, go ahead and find ways to be more productive when working remotely, but don’t leave creativity out of the conversation. While remote work cannot fully replicate the experience of in-person ideation, it doesn’t need to. Remote work can boost our creativity in ways that in-person collaboration can’t.
But more importantly, as remote work will be the new normal for many of us, the discussion cannot be about which is the better place to do creative work. We have to get better at being creative remotely. It’s no longer a nice-to-have.