Has Remote Work Killed Collaborative Creativity?


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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