Creativity thinking is a critical factor in the ability of a company to succeed over the long term. An Adobe study shows that companies that foster creativity that results in new and evolving products and services experience faster revenue growth and enjoy greater market share compared with their peers and become recognized as the best companies to work for. At first glance, it might appear that the new environment in which employees work remotely is likely to thwart creativity, especially the innovation that comes from brainstorming within a diverse team. Good leaders, however, can find ways to foster creativity when employees are physically distant from each other, says Jeff Nock Iowa, CEO and president of Prescient Consulting LLC.
Creative solutions come through openness to diverse ideas. Leadership, then, encourages creativity and innovation by creating communication forums that encourage everyone to participate and hearing ideas from all team members, each of whom brings a unique blend of culture, background, and experience. Virtual meetings often do not provide the social cues that help team members bond and some team members may be less likely to present ideas if they can’t easily see the reaction of other team members. To combat this tendency, leaders will focus on making their own communication as open as possible. They also will be careful to solicit ideas from all members and reach out individually to those who are hesitant to share in group Zoom environment, says Jeff Nock Iowa.
Creating a sense of virtual community is vital in general these days as well in encouraging creativity. This includes creating online social opportunities for work teams rather than just work meetings. What can get lost when working remotely is that sense of connection with co-workers that is created in physical work environments via brief discussions before and after meetings and while getting a cup of coffee in the break room.
The ways leaders share information about the project or challenge being tackled, as well as more subtle types of information, such as social information and contextual information must be done differently online. In addition to sending emails and having project team meetings online, one on one meetings with individual contributors and small group meetings are encouraged.
Sharing information about each person working on a project team helps. Social information includes the personality traits, background, and goals of each team member. Contextual information includes items such as available equipment, holidays, and customs. Social and contextual clues are essential in understanding what a person is trying to say or how that person behaves.
When employees physically work in the same space, they can easily pick up on these social and contextual clues. Yet a virtual team, especially one composed of members from various geographies, may not be able to acquire these clues as easily. To ensure that comments are interpreted properly, virtual team members will take the time to check in with each other socially and to share local context information with each other, says Jeff Nock Iowa. Meeting leaders should also be careful to facilitate this sharing and to create a norm that encourages members to ask clarifying questions. In-person meetings or team-building activities should be held occasionally to allow members to bond. Without adequate communication of social and contextual information, team members may make negative assumptions about each other that can lead to team dysfunction rather than creative brainstorming.
Although virtual platforms offer challenges to team creativity, they also offer some inherent advantages. Virtual platforms have the benefit of allowing for a more geographically and functionally diverse team than would be possible to assemble in person. Employees also may be more committed to the company if they don’t have to relocate every time a new team is formed. Both these factors result in greater creativity, says Jeff Nock Iowa.
Jeff Nock Iowa is an experienced executive leader who has a demonstrated history of growing startups, non-profits and established companies. He has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master’s in Management from Regis University. At Prescient, a company that helps funded early-stage and mid-cap companies, Jeff Nock Iowa has helped more than 250 companies grow.