With the CoVid pandemic still going on, most of us had to switch to working from home, at least for a certain amount of time. During the last months I have come across a number of articles on how to make working from home successful, how to organize remote teams and now how to get back to the office again. Many of these articles contain a side remark they don’t focus on and don’t elaborate on but assume it as a given:
Being creative as group does not really work in a virtual remote working environment. Real creative collaboration and problem solving can only meaningfully happen in a physical shared space.
Every time I read this, I had this particular sensation inside me that gets triggered when something does not feel quite right. Until recently I chose to ignore that sensation as the topic of creativity in a remote context was never the focus of any of these articles. However, the more often I read it the more curious I got to explore this assumption a bit deeper.
As a member of a company (creaffective in Europe and Asia) that since its founding in 2008 has mostly worked in a remote environment and as an innovation coach and facilitator who helps his customers to come up with new solutions, I personally never made the experience that creativity does not work in a virtual setting.
In this article I’d like to dig a bit deeper and analyze what makes creativity work in an organizational context and whether or not this is unlikely to work in a virtual environment.
What’s needed for creativity
Creativity is the ability and skill to come up with something new and to connect previously unconnected thoughts. It is a function of the elements Person, Process and Environment (which includes culture and structure of an organization). Let’s look at these elements in a bit more detail. I wrote five books about this, so it will really only be a bit more detail, I promise.
The creative Person
Apart from creativity being an ability that we all have and containing skills that we all can learn and improve, in order for a person to be creative some other elements need to be in place:
A person needs knowledge about the topic he or she want to be creative in. Without knowledge it will be difficult to connect previously unconnected thoughts.
A key factor is a person’s motivation. We need a good reason for being creative and we need to find it meaningful to be creative about something.
Furthermore, a person’s current mood also affects his or her capacity for being creative: That means we need to be in the mood for creativity and have enough brain capacity to be creative. That needs concentration and focus as well as enough brain power left to engage in creative thinking.
The Process of creativity
Although it might sometimes feel like there is no process and it is all messy and the result of coincidence, there is something like a creative process.
As soon as a group of people comes together to try to be creative, having a more explicit way of how the group will be creative is extremely helpful. There are different process models such as Systematic Creative Thinking or Design Thinking that provide a rough structure.
All creative processes furthermore separate two phases of thinking called divergent and convergent thinking.
Finally, it is important that the contents of the creative process are visualized or captured in an appropriate way.
For people in groups to be creative one ingredient is the so-called psychological safety. That means people are not afraid to speak up and voice their thoughts. That is important as there will be numerous fragile first ideas that need to be nurtured and developed. There also needs to be a certain playfulness for people willing to think in different directions and explore different avenues.
There also needs to be sufficient time. Creativity never is an efficient process and contains a lot of exploring and dropping of initial thoughts. Finally, for creativity to happen, some constraints and directions are useful at the same time freedom how to reach the goals is necessary.
Factors that support creativity
In my bestselling book Thinking Tools for creativity and innovation (in German, in English) I explain two different and complementary approaches to creativity in organizations. These are called the “make it happen” and “let it happen” approach.
The make it happen approach is the one that we often follow in our facilitated innovation workshops to help customers to create new products, services or strategies. “Make it happen” means that we deliberately try to be creative and make a conscious effort. That includes making sure that we take care of the aspects above and then have a facilitator guide a group through a creative process to come up with something new to whatever question we are facing.
The “let it happen” approach is a second complementary approach that does not focus on deliberately being creative but on creating the conditions so that creativity is more likely to happen. This includes making use of coincidences, like randomly bumping into a colleague when you pull yourself a coffee in the office. Therefore, some companies deliberately create welcoming and stimulating office environments where people enjoy being and like to mingle. This also means exposing people to different triggers (people, ideas and other stimuli) that happen when you are in a place with a diverse group of other people. This can be an office but also a vibrant city. These new stimuli are then easily connected with existing thoughts and thus spark creativity.
Slack time and incubation time when we don’t actively try to find a solution also helps as our mind subconsciously continues to think about it.
The physical environment makes group-creativity easier to emerge
From the previous paragraphs I draw two main conclusions:
First, the “let it happen” approach is easier to work in a physical environment. If you sit at home in front of your screen, it is just harder to accidently bump into your colleague and have an unplanned stimulating conversation over coffee.
Second, the current virtual and remote setting in many organizations also makes some of the needed requirements for creativity more challenging: For example, many people I interact with have one-hour virtual meetings scheduled back-to-back, sometimes 6 – 7 hours in a row without breaks. It is no wonder that in such a setting of constant time pressure without breaks people have no brain capacity and energy for being creative. Brains a fried and people are tired.
Practical tips for being creative in a virtual environment
Having said all this and reflecting on what we at creaffective do internally as well as with our clients, it is very well possible to be creative also in a virtual environment. However, we have to be aware that the approach we take needs to be adapted for this virtual context.
There are a few things you can deliberately try do to improve in order to be creative in groups in a virtual setting:
Plan in sufficient time: Co-creating a new solution or proposal is something very different from exchanging information or making a decision. In my new book (in German: Werkzeuge für großartige Meetings) about great meetings I explain that different purposes need different approaches. Being creative will need a longer period of uninterrupted time then a morning stand-up. Therefore, plan enough time from the start.
Factor in breaks: Also ensure that for a virtual creative meeting people had time to rest and calibrate themselves. Ensure that people have at least a 30 – 60 minute break before and afterwards.
Have warm-up time: At the beginning of a creative session, we often do a mental warm-up to get participants relaxed and into a more playful mood. For this we use deliberate fun exercises to warm up the brain.
Allow people to arrive at the session: This could be done via a simple check-in where everybody shortly states what’s going on and if there is anything that stops them from being present right now.
Switch on your webcams: Part of the beauty of being in a room together is that you receive a lot of non-verbal feedback by just looking at people. I admit that there is no equivalent in the virtual world. However, we can at least switch on our webcams to get some visual cues.
Provide suitable hardware: All companies that made remote work a priority ensure that their people have a certain hardware equipment to provide a good remote working experience. That means for example having a large screen that allows you to display two windows at the same time, such as a video conference tool and a collaborative document to edit content.
Use appropriate software tools: If you work remotely for longer than a week, having a good software infrastructure is also helpful to make being creative together easier. That could mean an online collaboration software such as slack or MS teams that allows people to chat and leave short messages. A video conference software that allows a larger group to split into smaller groups and a whiteboard or canvas software like miro or mural that allows groups to visualize, document and collaboratively edit contents.
Regularly talk about your process and find ways to improve: Do a regular retrospective as a group and see what works and what needs improvement in respect to being more creative. Then identify one or two things that you will focus on until the next retrospective.
In conclusion I think that being creative as a group is very well possible in a virtual setting. However, some factors that might naturally occur in a physical environment need to be taken care of in a deliberate way in the virtual setting. Once we are used to it and have taken care of this, creativity can happen anywhere.