Building creativity into remote teams is a huge priority for companies of all shapes and sizes. It’s how new ideas form and become reality, establishing a competitive edge. The most successful companies are oftentimes also the most creative in how they find unique paths to productivity and build products that customers didn’t know they needed. They also develop internal cultures that attract top talent.
However, a sea change is throwing a wrench into how companies can coax creativity out of employees. The number of companies with at least partially or completely remote or distributed teams has grown tenfold.
A significant number of people also say they would leave their job for a company that allowed them to work from home. And while most people report being more productive that way, many don’t receive the support they need to thrive.
Not getting enough support means there are thousands of employees who want to do their jobs remotely but usually end up feeling lonely in the process. It’s an unfortunate recipe for disconnection and disaffection.
Modern teams must anticipate these challenges and build an open, transparent culture that encourages creativity. It’s more than just saying “run wild.” Leaders need to be intentional about how they design a culture. It must be based on trust, alignment, and camaraderie while simultaneously empowering teammates with the right tools to foster that culture.
Build Flexibility into Your Structure.
Innovative companies, including tech startups, thrive by living on the cutting-edge and creating desirable workplaces for their teams. Desirable anything in companies includes open floor plans, pool tables, provided meals, and beer on tap. But these features do not magically transform offices into relaxed environments conducive to building a strong creative culture. In reality, these well-intentioned efforts sometimes stifle employees.
The remote team equivalent takes the form of misaligned Slack channels or mundane weekly video conference calls. These efforts do not nourish creative juices or address the big picture. It’s a prescription for anonymity and frustration
Building an internal culture that genuinely encourages creativity requires an approach more nuanced than grafting office-centric touchpoints onto remote and distributed teams. Research reveals that routine weekly video sync-ups mean little to team connectivity if communication is perceived to be top-down and prescriptive.
For fully distributed teams, extra effort must be made to ensure everyone is heard on a video call to reduce such perceptions. One easy fix is to negotiate a new time for weekly sync-ups that respects the different time zones in which teammates are working or switching who leads the meeting agenda. The more teams hear diverse voices from within their ranks, the tighter the bond they’ll share together.
Scheduled and formal meetings, while useful for communicating status, are notoriously difficult for brainstorming. Brainstorming is a cornerstone activity where creative teams spend considerable time.
Moreover, modern teams work more like beehives than top-down pyramids. Small groups join together, brainstorm ideas, build prototypes, and then demo those prototypes. It’s a messy but exciting process. Reigning in all this potential with scheduled and formal meetings can limit creativity.
One alternative is scrapping the regularly-scheduled team meeting and replacing it with spontaneous check-ins that act as casual coffee chats, hallway discussions, and mini-hackathons for remote teams.
A quick phone call, ad hoc video sync-up, or Slack conversation can do wonders in sparking creativity. Use these exchanges to bounce fledgling ideas off of a trusted coworker. Engaging in small-scale brainstorms removes the pressure of building a fleshed-out idea for a formal meeting.
Scheduled meetings also tend to suffer from “Death By PowerPoint,” where presentations and one-way communication overtake conversation and brainstorming. Such routine affairs stifle promising ideas from introverted employees or those with non-linear workflows. The flexibility to engage in micro-interactions with teammates is a very powerful tool to unleash latent team synergies.
Evolve from Text to Voice and Video.
How many of us have gotten buried in a Slack conversation or email thread that we joined too late? Diving into these communications is like reading a novel backward. With limited context surrounding these conversations, exploring them in retrospect feels like deciphering a mystery.
Building a culture where people can quickly reach out and talk via voice and video is an easy way to circumvent these never-ending text threads. Audio/visual messages are more efficient than text and enable free-flowing conversation. Text has historically served to clearly record ideas. However, superior audio and video technology allow teams to have fluid, comprehensive, and dynamic exchanges. With a remote team, don’t be shy about leveraging voice and video. As humans, we intuitively process information in auditory and visual ways. Incorporating this natural flair into workflows builds rapport within teams.
Leave a Video “Note” for Later.
Remote and distributed teams often operate in different time zones, not just throughout the United States but around the world. For example, maybe your head developer is in Israel, the rest of the dev team is stationed across North America and Asia, and the marketing lead works in Australia.
It’s pretty difficult to hop on an impromptu call when several team members are asleep. Plus, people are often in the zone, and interruptions can be distracting. That’s why lightweight and effective asynchronous workflows are important.
A video recording can work wonders communicating a creative idea with nuance and detail while it’s fresh in our minds. Text can lack subtlety. Regularly using “Show & Tell” videos to express context clearly can be a game-changer. A recorded video showing a bug reproduction step, commentary on visual assets, or user feedback can be more effective than sending emails or text chains laden with bulky screenshots.
Texts tend to be monotone, it’s hard to capture the flow of thought behind it. On the other hand, recorded videos offer a quick and effective alternative. They relay feedback while simultaneously building alignment and shared vision.
Learn to Check Out
Sometimes our best ideas come to us when we are not actively searching for them. One problem for remote and distributed teams, especially those working from home, is knowing when to sign off. If your boss or the rest of your team is distributed around the world, someone is always up to see what you share. This means it’s tougher to separate work from the rest of everyday life.
However, it is absolutely imperative to encourage team members to stop checking work communications at certain times during their day. An “always-on” mentality leads to tunnel vision when it comes to ideas and creativity. Tired, burned-out remote employees become less incentivized to share ideas.
To be creative, our minds must be able to look beyond what’s right in front of us to see a larger world of possibility. While many people have the natural compulsion to stay plugged in, the ability to switch off is learned.
Hence, leadership in remote teams must insist on offline time to help team members recharge their brains. If an employee cannot stop working, then it is critical that they be gently forced to take time off. This is for the sake of both their own health and creativity and their teams.
Ask Personal Questions.
Teams consisting of friends, or those who share more meaningful daily interactions, perform better than those composed solely of acquaintances. For example, a study of the behaviors of a pharmaceutical sales team found that sales increased 10% for every 10% increase in interactions with people on other teams.
With the inability to bond over lunch, random water cooler conversations, holiday party drinks or after-work events, remote and distributed employees lose out on numerous ways to connect with their colleagues.
To address this issue, remote teams should schedule monthly, quarterly, or annual in-person events where work is not discussed (at least not solely). These events should emphasize personal bonding. The most important aspect is setting aside quality time to engage in meaningful, personal conversations with coworkers.
If in-person meetings are cost-prohibitive, start calls with simple personal questions. These goad everyone to open up a little bit, and help with building creativity into remote teams. While it may seem innocuous, opening a call by asking what everyone wants to be when they grew up, or what they hope to accomplish in their personal lives during the next year, gives remote teams a way to truly connect with each other.
Even if these conversations happen over email or Slack, chatting about non-work-related interests adds a comfort level that doesn’t exist when just talking about work projects all the time. It also gives employees a platform to showcase their personalities and interests. This can lead to new ideas and novel approaches to current challenges. Furthermore, it also builds a stepping stone to more meaningful conversations.
By no means is the above list exhaustive in suggesting the innumerable ways in which we can be building creativity into remote teams. It can be as straightforward as scheduling a meeting at an “irregular” time that might be more conducive to sharing ideas from certain team members.
Maybe building creativity is the use of a new workplace tool that makes it easier to have spontaneous, ad hoc conversations. The point is, you have to be creative about your infrastructure and strategy to allow employees to engage in their own way on their own time. But you also do not have to flip your entire system upside-down.
By giving remote and distributed teams as many avenues as possible to reach the destination, you begin to open up new paths and possibilities that can benefit both your teams and your customers.
Image Credit: andrea piacquadio; pexels
Badri is cofounder of Jamm, a lightweight voice and video collaboration tool for remote teams. Prior to Jamm, he was CTO and SVP of Engineering at TokBox, now part of Nexmo (Vonage’s API platform).