Can Remote Teams Be Creative? How?


Myth: Working remotely inhibits innovation.

Critics of remote work often make the claim that creativity and innovation are more effective when they occur in office settings.  However, this claim lacks evidence. Now that a global workforce has been experimenting with remote work for nearing two years, the research is in: remote work can be an advantage for innovation and remote teams are creative. 

Scientific American reports “extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation advantage and outcompete in-person teams by adopting best practices for innovation, such as virtual brainstorming.” The New York Times goes even further, saying, “people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.”

Three key takeaways to highlight within these articles are:

  1. In-office creativity doesn’t occur on an even playing field. Typically, in the office, the most extroverted or outspoken team members tend to be heard.
  2. Collaboration that only occurs in co-located environments has a tendency toward producing group-think outcomes rather than the most creative or innovative outcomes.
  3. People need deep work focus time to truly be innovative. This is harder to achieve in solely office environments.

In addition, exemplar all-remote companies such as GitLab, Zapier, and Doist are proving that remote is not an obstacle in these areas  by leading innovation within their respective industries.

Simply trying to copy and paste brainstorming and creative-thinking processes from an office to a virtual work environment will yield subpar results. How can companies and leaders leverage the advantages of remote and hybrid setups to support innovation and creativity? At Workplaceless, we recommend a proven approach to effective remote work that applies to remote team creativity by focusing on three areas: mindset, capabilities, and infrastructure.


Mindset: Reflect on Your Personal and Collective Mindset Regarding Creativity and Innovation

Creative ideas require observation, space, and time. Those “ah-ha” moments take place on walks, on vacation, and in the shower for a reason; positivity, solitude, and less busy work opens up individuals to creative thought.

 Often, a lack of creativity and innovation stems from:

  • too many meetings and inefficient processes
  • being overworked, burnt out, or isolated
  • a lack of psychological safety and trust
  • a fear of change

Your mindset about creativity dramatically influences your ability to innovate. It’s critical to assess your perspective outside of the in-office vs. remote debate and focus on what’s at the core of your team’s—and your own—creativity. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When and where do I, or my team, generate the best ideas?
  • What does my team need to be creative? 
  • Are creativity and innovation currently driven by one or a select handful of voices?
  • How much creativity does my team need to be successful?
  • Does my team have structures in place to introduce new ideas and drive change in our work environment?
  • Are there barriers in place that inhibit creativity?

By reflecting on what you and your team need to innovate, you are taking the first step toward effectively establishing and maintaining a remote or hybrid environment that ensures robust creativity and innovation. 


Capabilities: Develop Habits to Cultivate Remote Team Creativity

Remote-first teams that prioritize virtual work—and specifically those that embrace async-first practices—reduce time spent in meetings and pinging or calling one another for information. Using this extra time for deep thinking, reflection, breaks, research, and reading leads to additional inspiration and breakthroughs. 

The hybrid work landscape is ripe with opportunities to innovate. Teams must embrace new ways to inspire ideas and translate them into practices in virtual and async environments.

Gain Inspiration from the Environment

Team members are dispersed and therefore experiencing different external influences, whether geographical, social, or otherwise. In hybrid environments, you have the incremental difference of in-office and virtual experiences. Allow those different environments to play out in the creativity your team members bring to the table. Ideas can come from time spent with people, in solitude, or exposure to new cultures.

Use Tools to Level the Playing Field for Idea Generation

In synchronous environments, like in-office meetings, individuals often listen to others speak, wait their turn, and engage in group conversation. In async-first environments, teams can leverage the channels and spaces for others to share ideas and resources not constrained by meeting space or time. Consider whether ideas should be shared anonymously, which can further encourage creative thought by reducing group-think and increasing processing time.

Increase Psychological Safety with Open and Inclusive Brainstorming 

Leaders hold the responsibility for ensuring not only that perspectives are heard but that team members feel safe to share their ideas in the first place. Many of the digital tools you are likely already using have features that you can use to increase psychological safety. By using anonymous idea submissions and voting, you can design brainstorming sessions that are more open and inclusive than if all participants are in the same physical location. Establishing async brainstorming practices helps, but leaders also need to: ask more questions, avoid rushing to conclusions, challenge their own biases, and facilitate open dialogue. 


Infrastructure: Create the Systems for Remote Team Creativity to Thrive

Maximize the benefits of virtual workspaces by establishing an infrastructure that enables team members to take the time and space they need to think creatively and collaborate toward innovative outcomes. 

One of the common complaints about remote or hybrid work is missing out on “watercooler moments” that lead to new ideas. While there is no evidence that these moments actually contribute to innovation, it continues to be one of the things that remote workers miss about working in the office. 

Synchronous time can influence creative outputs. Recognizing the processes needed for innovation, helps teams adapt their creative practices for remote working environments. To build a new creative process, use the Placeless Taxonomy, in which the lower level creating tasks, such as idea generating, happens async and the higher levels tasks, such as connection, decision-making, and innovation, are achieved through sync meetings and connections.

Enable Serendipity with Structure and Permission

Informal conversations can still happen in remote and hybrid teams, but there needs to be structure and explicit permission to allow them to happen. Set expectations with your team that these types of interactions are encouraged and provide that structure that enables them: set up virtual office hours or randomly pair people to connect one-on-one or in small groups. 

Constrain Creativity

It sounds counter-intuitive, but creativity enjoys constraints. Time limits, breaks, and structured communication rules lead to increased creativity. Structured virtual meetings that increase productivity can also lead to creative thought, so leverage these for your hybrid team members.

Establish Virtual Brainstorms, Parking Lots, and Graveyards 

Use virtual collaboration tools or team channels to keep track of ideas that might normally be spoken verbally with no way to review or revisit in the future. Brainstorm ideas, park ideas that are not yet ready, or to keep track of discarded ideas. Keeping a running record of ideas in a virtual space allows teams to return to ideas that have been previously suggested, which can spark new ideas. 

Structure Deep Work Sessions

People need space and time for deep work and creative flow. Async-first teams, that minimize time spent in ineffective meetings, free up more working time for deep work. Support your team by blocking calendars for Deep Work Session for uninterrupted, focused work time. Carve out more time for focused work and breaks to boost productivity and creativity. 

The remote work future has unlimited potential for creativity and innovation. It just requires breaking out of prior mindsets and habits to embrace the opportunities.

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Katie Scheuer

Katie Scheuer

Scheuer helps teams, leaders, and companies thrive in hybrid and remote environments. A former career coach, she has spent her career guiding adults to develop new skills to achieve their personal and professional goals. In 2019, she quit her job to travel through Asia and Europe, and is currently digital nomading in the US. Follow her on LinkedIn.
Scheuer helps teams, leaders, and companies thrive in hybrid and remote environments. A former career coach, she has spent her career guiding adults to develop new skills to achieve their personal and professional goals. In 2019, she quit her job to travel through Asia and Europe, and is currently digital nomading in the US. Follow her on LinkedIn.
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