If you ask CEOs and other senior executives about the impact of significant remote working from COVID, you hear a common concern: the loss of creativity.
Group interactions in physical meetings, along with the spontaneous connections in hallways and elevators, have always fueled innovation. Without those interactions, the thinking goes, companies could lose their creative edge.
This was a real concern we faced at Lippincott when COVID hit. We’re a creative brand and innovation agency that works with clients like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Timberland. Throughout our 75-plus-year history, the heart of our work is collaborating to create ideas and bring them to life. When the shutdown happened, we worried that we might shut down too, or at least suffer huge declines in the quality of our work. But over the past 18 months, we’ve remained as creative as ever. That experience has taught us that with the right approaches and mindset, a company can sustain—and even enhance—creativity with remote working.
Here are some of the elements that helped us remain creative despite remote work—and what will be critical as companies go back to the office in various hybrid work models.
01 | Ideas can thrive when people work independently
Our firm had always treated the office as a hub of creative development where the energizing hum of a shared workspace is critical to getting to great output. But when we abruptly shifted to remote working, we found that the quality and creativity of our output didn’t suffer. One important reason was that colleagues had the space to develop ideas more completely before sharing them with others for feedback. Our people thought deeply, pushed further and took the extra initiative when given extra room to work more independently outside of the office environment.
A 2020 article in MIT Sloan Management Review titled Virtual Collaboration Won’t Be the Death of Creativity talked about the importance of working independently. “It’s widely believed that synergy among group members generates more creativity than individuals can,” wrote the author, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management. “But virtually no research supports this. In fact, most studies have found that ‘per capita’ creativity declines precipitously as group size increases.”
02 | Online meetings give everyone an equal voice
Zoom is not a perfect tool, but it offers one advantage to in-person meetings by leveling out hierarchies. All of the implicit signals of physical meetings—the location of people in the room, body language, or some people talking over others—get reduced in the online environment. Everyone is just one tile on the screen. That elevates some of the more junior people in the organization, or those who may have unique or offbeat perspectives, and allows them to be heard. We’ve seen some employees formerly viewed as quiet and unassuming before the pandemic step up and demonstrate real leadership in different aspects of the business during online meetings. Zoom alone doesn’t create this diversity. It takes a culture of inclusivity to allow this kind of exchange to happen, but Zoom has helped multiply the opportunity for different voices to share new perspectives.
03 | Digital tools add new dimensions to collaboration
In-person collaboration typically involves whiteboards and sticky notes. Those tools can work, but they’re static. They don’t help teams explore animation or map a user’s journey on a mobile app in our digital world. In contrast, tools like Mural, Trello, and Figma enable groups of remote employees to collaborate while enabling animation, real-time group editing, and digital editing. Moreover, our collaboration with clients has evolved from scheduled meetings at preset intervals to more organic exchanges, with constant sharing back and forth to build on each other’s ideas.
04 | The whole world can become your talent pool
Remote work means that teams are no longer constrained by geography. Instead, companies can look within in the high-stakes game of finding the right talent. At Lippincott, we foster cross-collaboration among global offices. For example, our Partner in Singapore is called in to collaborate on projects from London to Dubai to the U.S., offering his unique customer experience knowledge. In the past, his distance would have been a perceived deal-breaker. Today we also curate teams with more diverse backgrounds and perspectives—a crucial component of creativity—by being willing to hire people located anywhere, not just in our central office hub cities.
05 | Spontaneity and meaningful connection can be fueled online
We’ve replicated some informal communication among employees through tools like Slack. We use dedicated channels to share cool new innovations and insights, along with Teamflow to replicate the serendipitous nature of office meet-ups and informal interactions that formerly only happened in a physical location. We also use fireside chats to hear feedback in informal group settings.
06 | Office spaces can be reimagined as collaboration hubs
Last, as we transition back to some in-person work, we’re viewing the office as primarily a hub for situations when in-person collaboration is critical. It’s no longer about coming into the office every day but rather at select times when you can create more meaningful connections with colleagues or clients. We’re also reimagining and reconfiguring the layout to support this. For example, we got rid of all offices for senior partners to create huddle rooms for teams. We also established quarterly “All Together Days” when everyone can come in to foster connection across our entire staff. These are examples of how we’re reimagining the office to acknowledge the importance of human connection.
Remote work clearly poses some challenges—there’s something irreplaceable about direct contact with colleagues—but it’s likely here to stay as we plan for a hybrid future – and that’s a good thing. The key is to be creative about how to maintain creativity. The companies that will be most successful as we emerge from the pandemic will undoubtedly embrace these positive aspects of remote working to create the best of both worlds.