Expanding Where the Magic Happens

Fostering Creative Structures for the Remote Workplace

The workplace environment is a key part of the creative process. It is where the magic happens, so to speak. So what happens to the concept of workplace when your employees are remote or your teams collaborate across continents?

Being someone who studies and teaches creativity and creative thinking, I have always been fascinated by Thomas Edison’s “invention factory” which existed in Menlo Park, New Jersey from 1876 to 1882. In an unassuming, two-story white house (complete with front porch), Edison and his team did the work that would secure them 400 patents in a six year period.  More importantly, with its open floor plan for ease of communication, and scientists and skill laborers from diverse disciplines, at Menlo Park, Edison and his team would create the modern concept of an R&D lab—a workplace style which, more than a century later, is the standard for many digital agencies.

Creativity and the work environment go hand-in-hand

Psychologically, creativity blooms in the workplace that supports diversity, freedom of expression, and experimentation. Physically, the architecture of the workplace can foster creativity when there are places to gather, traffic flow that prompts run-ins across different disciplines, and also dedicated areas in which to work uninterrupted.  One of the best examples of this is the architecture of Pixar, where the cafeteria, mail room and restrooms are all centrally located for optimal mingling and inspired encounters.

Recently though, I have been wondering about something that is true for mediaman employees who work remotely or are involved in international collaborative projects.  What effect does working remotely or only through online communication channels have on creativity?

As an agency, we have several projects that offer us proof that Webex and Skype can be a vehicle for successful ideation and well crafted projects.  Yet, we still long for better ways to connect. Ways that capture the spontaneity of communication that happens naturally in the workplace.

We’ve put some thought into creating a communication structure that can generate spontaneity and idea sharing through everyday online communication.  The following is a list of techniques that we are practicing at mediaman and a few that are still just being dreamed of.  Some of these work, some require a conscious new mindset, and others feel like they still fall short of what we long to have, but the success of each is directly related to whether the team finds it effective or too time consuming.

Techniques for remote workplaces

  • Have  a Pre-meetings Grace Period: Starting meetings by “turning on” the online communication platform 15 minutes early is the conference call version of the office water cooler.  By giving everyone a chance to join a little early you can share interests and catch up.  As this small talk tends to happen naturally anyway, this method also has the added benefit of helping meetings start at their scheduled time.
  • Add Google+ to Lunch: Take lunch online and give people a casual place to share what’s on their mind and listen to general goings on.  This works best if there are some natural extroverts in the group willing to talk and let others listen.
  • Take a Coffee Break via Skype:  Interested in getting to know one of your colleagues better? Invite them to coffee via Skype.  Set up a 15 minute call and tell them to meet you online, coffee in hand.
  • Leave your “digital” door open: Interruptions are both a key ingredient and the bane of creativity.  At the office, you know—through body language, headphones, or an open or closed door—when someone wants to be left alone to work or when they are willing to be interrupted.  Using Skype’s status symbols to let people know your availability is one way that this can be recreated online.  Another option is to have a place where you hang out online, such as Google+, around the same time each day.  Being open to interrupt others is something that takes some discipline.
  • Be Social:  Internal social media tools such as Yammer are great ways to foster cross- collaboration and sharing of ideas.  Allowing everyone to post at their convenience and on topics that are of interest to them naturally brings together like-minded talents.  Creating campaigns that leverage the platform can also be a way to help integrate internal social media and make it an everyday tool and site to check out.
  • Share Work In Progress: It is hard to peer over a colleague’s shoulders when they are 1,500 miles away, but it can be possible through screen sharing or document sharing (by posting at the end of each work day) on platforms such as Basecamp or Google Docs.  Sharing work early helps cultivate a better feedback within a team and can also make meetings more effective.  Too much sharing though can increase work load and get some people distracted, so each team should consider the structure around this that works for them.

While working remotely may still have some ways to go before we can have the same impressive idea output as Edison’s Menlo Park, the question remains: Can we obtain the dream of working in our pajamas AND find moments of spontaneous workplace creativity with our colleagues?

Suggestions, tactics, and personal hard-knocks experience of what works and doesn’t is welcome.

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