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How to boost creativity in a virtual environment

Future of Work|Talent
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By Katie Plemmons and Karen O’Leonard | March 19, 2021

Creative brainstorming is possible in a virtual environment through real-time collaboration and more diverse teams.

With offices still closed throughout most of the world, how do you foster creativity? Many pundits say that COVID-19 is stifling creativity and is hampering innovation, costing companies billions and setting back the clock on new products and services — arguing that the lack of face-to-face interaction is the cause. Companies are scrambling to find ways to capture creativity and innovate virtually, but with employees hunched over their computers for hours at a time using Zoom or Teams — many with kids at home and stressed physically and emotionally — is creative brainstorming even possible?

Granted, creativity can be challenged by remote work, but it’s not impossible. And remote work has several benefits — it is not a new concept; it’s just not ever been adopted to the levels we are experiencing now. Instead, could the virtual work environment actually be accelerating innovation? 

Teams are no longer bound by physical constraints for meetings. Collaboration is achieved seamlessly through digital whiteboards and screen sharing — versus presentations. Instead of planning multi-hour in-person meetings that require logistical coordination, presentation materials and agendas, video calls tend to last no more than an hour, are more ad hoc in nature, and facilitate the sharing of thoughts and ideas easily and often. Teams can also get feedback more frequently and incorporate changes before finalizing.

By reducing the necessity of geography-tied teams, global collaboration is at our fingertips, allowing for broader knowledge and new perspectives. 

The importance of ‘jam sessions’

Recently, Willis Towers Watson, launched a series of virtual “jam sessions” — brainstorming sessions to generate ideas to solve clients biggest and toughest problems. Jam attendees or ”jammers” were provided with a problem statement and whiteboard, creating an environment for targeted thinking around a specific problem. The main goal of these jam sessions was to foster collaboration and deeper thinking around client problems. Approaching problem solving in this manner opens jam sessions to colleagues who have an interest in solving a particular problem, regardless of their location or line of business. These jam sessions produced almost 50 ideas, which are now being refined and developed further. The quality of these ideas is much higher than the ideas from our typical in-person jam sessions, thanks largely to the diversity of perspectives in the sessions.

“Look at any high-performing business and you will see diversity of thought behind growth and innovation," says Antonia Hock, global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, a global consulting and advisory firm in Bethesda, Md.

What about chance encounters? 

One of the challenges with remote work is the absence of those serendipitous encounters we experience when working in an office. We may bump into a colleague in the cafeteria, drop in on a conversation or have one of those proverbial “water cooler” moments that leads to a creative idea. How do we replicate this virtually?

Recently we tried to create chance encounters following one of our innovation network virtual events. Following the main topic, which included a panel of innovators, four to five participants were randomly placed into a “spark session.” Each group was given a prompt to get their discussions rolling, and then left to go in whatever direction made sense. The sessions were a huge success, surfacing several ideas for new products, networking among colleagues, and a general feeling among participants that they learned something new and were happy to meet birds of a feather. 

Get physical

A Stanford University study on creativity found that walking enhances creativity. Many thought leaders have already espoused the virtues of getting out of the office as means to thinking differently. Today, during the pandemic, we don’t have as many options, but walking is one option available to most of us. Try taking a walk around your neighborhood between video calls or during a conference call. It will almost certainly benefit you physically, and the environment will give way to new sights, sounds and scents, enhancing creativity and sparking new thoughts.

Here are a few tips that can help foster innovation in a virtual world for all organizations:

  • Encourage walks for all employees as a way to break the monotony of endless video calls. The physical, emotional and creative benefits will soon be apparent.
  • Try brainstorming sessions without video and suggest that people move about their home offices or take a walk while they are brainstorming. Or add in a guided stretch break in the middle of a brainstorming session to give people a chance to move around and stir their thinking. (We did a short yoga break in between one session and it was wildly popular.)
  • Think outside geographic and reporting lines — think more about who the right people are to help solve the problem. Bring the “out of the box thinkers” together, people from different segments, departments, and locations to generate new ideas and thoughts.
  • Keep sessions short and more frequent, allow for regular feedback on ideas and group brainstorming sessions.

Not only is creative brainstorming possible in a virtual environment, it can thrive. Real-time collaboration, global inclusion, and removal of physical and reporting barriers are all ignitors of innovation. If organizations embrace this opportunity, they will see the possibilities.

Authors

Director – Corporate Innovation

Head of Innovation

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