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Summary:

Gone are the days when creative work was always done by teams operating from the same location. Yet there’s a a great deal of creative collaboration that still relies on our being able to “workshop” concepts together. What does remote work mean for creative collaboration?

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Gone are the days when creative work was always done by teams operating from the same location at the same time. Yet there’s a great deal of creative collaboration that still relies on our being able to “workshop” concepts together, using whatever means possible, in real time.

What does remote work mean for creative collaboration?

The Old Model

While technology may have made many aspects of business easier and simpler, the traditional model of creative collaboration has a lot going for it.

Two minds (or three, or more) are better than one. To come up with ideas — or solutions — is difficult, which is why creative collaboration in teams is so valuable. This model allows us to gain the advantages of different viewpoints, skill sets, and values in concocting solutions that exceed the requirements of the project brief.

The creative process is a particularly human endeavor. When they’re working in teams, creatives rely on mood, inflection, body language, gestures, and eye contact to gauge responses to ideas, and clarify their understanding of what’s been communicated verbally. Often, it’s the use of these non-verbal cues that separates the great creative teams from the less-than-great.

If a creative collaboration endeavor will continue for some time, keeping those creatives in the same physical space can also be helpful. The walls become populated with idea drafts, notecards and images. The team reorganizes the space to reflect their working relationships, and make themselves as comfortable as possible.

The physical space speaks loudly to each team member about what they’re doing, what they’re part of, and where it’s at. Those spatial reminders may help them recall a conversation they had with a team member, an idea they’d forgotten, or a thought they’d had that they want to take back to the team tomorrow.

New Challenges

The use of dispersed creative teams presents some challenges, especially for those who previously worked with the “agency” model of creativity: a bunch of people in a room with a whiteboard.

In a distributed creative effort, team members may be more likely to work on the creative task independently. First of all, they’re not physically surrounded by their colleagues, so if they want even to do so much as run an idea past someone, it takes effort — and may therefore be avoided.

Also, more effort may be needed to integrate the independent inputs or ideas that your dispersed team members have come up with. Three creatives working independently will come up with different angles and ideas than three creatives working together. That doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t as good, but it often means that more work is required to integrate them into a coherent whole.

In some ways, the challenges inherent in working from different locations, under the burdens of technology and time, preclude some aspects of the very concept of “working together.” It’s much harder to work together when you’re not together. And this is especially true for creative work.

The Distributed Creative Process

The creative process differs for each individual, but in an on-site creative team effort, it can be molded to suit the requirements of the team members, tasks and workplace situations fairly easily.

Throw distance into the equation, and the creative process can be more difficult to get — and keep — a handle on. Also, the naturally disjointed nature of remote collaboration can mean that the already-slippery creative process is more easily derailed: it’s more difficult to keep everyone on the same page, in the same frame of mind, and working at the same level of momentum when they’re in different locations.

There are ways to minimize the negative potential of the distance separating your creatives. Making it easy for each person to record, store and share their ideas in whatever format suits them is critical. Don’t delete evidence of old ideas, though: keep them on file in a logical, searchable order so that, if needed, they can be accessed by the team — as idea-triggers for future projects, or the enrichment of the current one.

Keeping the output or product separate from creatives’ work in progress and from their raw ideas is also a good idea. Wherever possible, keep a clear delineation between idea that have been developed and discarded, and what has been developed and produced.

Contact is, of course, crucial. Consider its regularity, depth and frequency, and make sure that your team members can embrace the approach you choose. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas — video chats every couple of hours during intense collaboration phases, for example — or to change your approach if it doesn’t seem to be working as you’d hoped. Alleviating blockages and ensuring smooth, clear communication is often the most important thing a manager can do to support a creative team.

Transparency during the assembly of the creative product is also a necessity. To get the greatest value from your creatives, you’ll want to give them the ability to adjust or amend the product as it’s created. Do this in a way that ensures their accountability to the rest of the team, and so that each team member is aware of the impacts the others are having, and you should avoid nasty surprises.

How do you manage the creative process in your dispersed team? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user michelleho.

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  1. Google Video Chat (or sometimes Skype) with a real-time Google Doc works wonders.

    We used Google Wave for a while for the collaborative document editing (since Google Docs at the time weren’t real-time), but now Google Docs work great.

    I probably have an active video chat going for 1.5-2 hours a day.

  2. Georgina Laidlaw Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Hey mickmel,
    Nice one. Thanks for the comment. I’m a bit of a fan of Docs too.

    I really like your lengthy video chat suggestion — it changes the idea of “chat” into something that’s more like a presence in the remote offices you’re dealing with, and less of a let’s-get-this-done-and-move-on proposition. Really helpful in terms of what I’m talking about in this post :)

  3. Georgina — Our chats certainly turn into a “presence” than a chat, especially with my primary designer. We both work from home, but live 90 minutes apart and rarely meet in person. While chatting, we’ll often go a few minutes without saying a word, each of us working on stuff. It’s kinda cool.

  4. Julian Newman Wednesday, May 18, 2011

    A mega-problem for remote creative collaboration is – particularly with Videoconferencing – how do you allow remote participants to interact naturally BOTH with one another AND with the problem/solution representation? Conventional methods of chroma-compositing won’t fill the bill. We are working on a solution exploiting OpenNI (the technology behind Kinect). MIT use Kinect’s depth perception to create a private space into which participants can disappear. A neat trick, but probably not addressing a real user requirement. We want to use it instead to divide the real estate of a single large screen into VC images of participants and graphic images of problem solution space.

    1. Sounds interesting, Julian. Do you have a link to your project?

  5. This issue covers a huge spectrum of possibilities, from the legendary chance Eureka encounter in the hallway to collocated teamwork forever. If team members live reasonably close to each other one can use face-to-face get-togethers at a project’s start as a tool to get those key thoughts out and organized. After that, collaboration easily can occur with media of less richness than face-to-face (possibly reinforced by further get-togethers).
    If the team members are far apart, such as some with which I’ve worked where no two members lived in the same country, there is no option to on-line interaction. I have yet to find a serendipity loss even then. But that could be sheer luck ;-)

  6. Andreas Forsland Thursday, May 19, 2011

    Georgina, What a great story. I think it’s a top of mind thing for so many people these days. I work for a company that makes real time collaboration software (won’t make a plug here but you can find out with a little digging). I am responsible for our global creative team in marketing at our company and we have two main locations, with about 20% or so of our team working remote. We work across 5 different time zones. No kidding, it’s difficult to do great work and requires more than technology to do it well.

    We tend to look at the importance of realtime (synchronous) collaboration in the parts of a project that require big concepts or directional ideas (like campaigns, etc). We use a blend of our tools and other tools (like basecamp, box, etc), but usually come together in person for the “inception” of projects. Once ideas are baked, it’s much easier to get into the production mindset remotely, with more frequent but smaller bursts of meetings/reviews. Having some tools “always on” is a big help in keeping the teams feeling together (chat, webcams, etc) and central working files critical using cloud storage or virtual desktops/remote access tools.

    The underlying factor in my opinion is how to establish and maintain chemistry, trust with the teams and really listening to each other and customers – whether they’re in person or distributed. These areas change the game in management style and theory, which, technology aside is the most important thing to master – and we’re still learning as we go.

  7. Julian, Jack and Andreas, thanks for the fascinating comments — some *great* insight here.

    It’s really interesting to see how you’ve been adapting practice and technology to meet the demands of collaborative creativity, as well as to get an idea of the challenges you’re facing.

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