Closing The Gap: Nurturing Creativity In A Remote Workforce

By Diane Domeyer, Executive Director, The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing creative, digital, marketing, advertising and public relations talent with the best companies on a project, contract-to-hire and full-time basis. 

Since the start of COVID-19, there have been stories of creative professionals thriving while sheltered in place. William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton reportedly did some of their best work while dodging bubonic plague — and they didn’t have video calls. So, if your design team is working remotely, what’s to stop your staff, with all the advantages of modern technology, from delivering their usual high standards?

Plenty, as it turns out — if you let things drift. Your team may have been working remotely for several weeks now, and creativity and collaboration could start to suffer. Dispersed through no fault of their own, your team may no longer feel like they’re pulling in the same direction. On an individual level, some people will be missing their old, daily routine, whether it’s collecting their thoughts on the morning commute or swapping ideas around the coffee machine.

Bringing your team together under these circumstances has been a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity. Remote working was on the rise long before the pandemic hit. What you learn now about nurturing creativity in a remote environment could be just as beneficial over the longer term. Here are some ideas for helping your team stay inspired and connected.

It’s Good To Talk

Good managers have a sixth sense for office morale, knowing when team members need a lift or a pep talk. Identifying those signs from a distance takes extra effort. Working remotely, with your team out of sight, you may have developed a more structured communications strategy. At the team level, aim for continuity. Keep regular brainstorming sessions and touch bases on the calendar. If your team usually ends the week with a virtual happy hour, find new ways to make them engaging, like establishing theme days or asking team members to lead short art tutorials.

At an individual level, start with what you already know about a person’s creative processes and build from there. A designer who does their best work wearing headphones in a quiet corner is unlikely to appreciate you popping up on IM frequently. But someone who prefers to bounce their ideas off other people might welcome it.

Just as in the office, you also need to know when to get out of the way entirely. Encourage coworkers to take “virtual coffee breaks,” when they can throw around quirky ideas or simply shoot the breeze. The kind of camaraderie forged during a stressful event often outlives the event itself, so don’t be surprised if you return to the office with a closer-knit workforce.

Technology Is Your Friend …

With video-conferencing technology, you may be surprised at how smoothly you’ve been able to make the transition to virtual meetings and still see everyone. Ask people to switch their webcams on — not because you want to police who’s still in their pajamas but because non-verbal cues are a critical part of team interactions. Most people feel more comfortable pitching creative ideas when they can see nodding heads or raised eyebrows, rather than a blank screen.

There are plenty of online tools that can help your team collaborate from a distance, including virtual whiteboards and cloud-based mind maps. If you have an office brag board for giving kudos to designers who have hit (or surpassed) their project goals, why not take that online, too? Of course, finding these and other applications can take time and know-how, but that in itself is something you can use to your advantage. Choose your two or three best problem solvers and task them with finding creative solutions to the obstacles caused by remote working. They will enjoy the challenge, and almost certainly rise to it.

… But It’s Not A Cure-All

While technology can ease the symptoms of enforced isolation, it’s not a remedy for all challenges. It’s up to you to hold your team together during these stressful times. Being open and authentic goes a long way toward easing their worries and frustrations. Sharing as much as possible fosters trust and can boost morale.

Don’t forget: A leader’s role in holding the group together extends to employees’ personal, human needs. One of your messages might be: “Switch off.” Your team needs time away from their screens. Frame this as a positive action, a way to spark creativity. Don’t just encourage but say you expect team members to take a break from technology during the workday to do something creative. They can sketch, paint, practice the guitar or redraft a project proposal in rhyming couplets. Emphasizing that these side projects can boost creativity and reduce stress sends a powerful message to your team that you consider their welfare to be among your core priorities.

A final tip for those managing a remote team: Lead by example. Just because you can work any hours of the day or night, doesn’t mean you should. If your team sees you looking fresh, upbeat and relaxed it will boost their spirits — and likely their output and creativity, too.