Change at Work

Catalyzing Creativity at a Distance

Remote teams often struggle with creativity—but implementing some simple routines and tools can support their best work

When teams go remote, one of the first challenges they face is maintaining creativity—without being able to pop in on a co-worker or gathering a team for a quick brainstorm, creativity suffers. Kaz Brecher, Founder of Curious Catalyst, Marie Goal, Design Director of MetaLab, and James Hobbs, VP Design at MetaLab shared some of their best practices for keeping creativity going:

  • Establish rituals. To make up for the lack of shared space, make sure you set up rituals to stay in touch with colleagues, like sharing work-in-progress at the end of the day. They also encourage cycling between deep, individual work, and collaboration.
  • Be human. Build culture by checking in with colleagues and discussing what’s going on. It’s easy to miss to miss non-verbal cues in larger meetings, so make sure you follow up in 1:1s to find out how they’re really doing.
  • Put remote culture first. Especially if you have people working remotely as well as people working on-site, make sure you design collaboration to be inclusive of the remote team. For example, when jumping on a Zoom call, if one person is remote, everyone has to call in from their desk.
  • Experiment with different tools. Try different tools like Miro or Figma to capture ideas, and summarize outputs at the end of meetings so everyone’s on the same page.

Read the Transcript

Kaz Brecher:

All right. Good morning everyone and thanks all of you who are joining us. James and Marie, we get to do this together. So, we’re going to get right into it. We don’t have a ton of time, but we wanted to start with one small exercise that’s an example of something you can do because a lot of working remotely and harnessing creativity, one of the ways I look at it is how do we use everything outside the frame. We’re so used to being in the same physical space and we know that physical space actually impacts our ability to be creative.

This is why places like IDEO have done amazing work on how you design spaces. So, I’m going to hold up a prompt and it’s also going to be handed out on Twitter. So those of you following along at home, I just pulled a card from a game that I co-designed called Wheezy and I’ve asked James and Marie to find something in their visible environment that matches this somehow in some way. So we did pre do this so we’d save time, but go ahead and tweet your own image to match this. So James, what did you pull as your match? Just hold your phone up. What did you do?

James Hobbs:

Okay. So I hope that you can see that. I have two ceramic mugs on my desk just beside my computer. And the shape of the items seem to match what you posted really well. So I was [inaudible 00:01:15] right on my desk.

Kaz Brecher:

I love it. Amazing. Thank you. Marie, what about you? What about your match?

Marie Gosal:

So I had to go a little further a field. This is for my daughter’s bedroom. It’s one of her dresses and the stripes were exactly matching your stripe diameter. So I was like, this is my thing.

Kaz Brecher:

So good. And this was a building in Amsterdam near where I used to teach. I love it. So what’s interesting about things like this, and this game actually started because I was working with a team and teaching with an international group and we were always pinging back and forth. And it’s interesting because in the time of COVID, one of the biggest questions I’m mapping is what’s it like where you are. I’m hearing that a lot and this desire to know what’s it like where you are actually gives us an opportunity to connect across our spaces and to harness everything else.

So, one of the things that I wanted to do is hear from both of you in the ways that you have been working. We know that there’s a lot of different ways to be creative, quote and quote, and to work with remote teams depending on whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. And I’m curious in terms of where you’ve been surprised, what has been an example of one of the most surprising or successful creative results that directly has to do with being remote? I don’t know who wants to go first? Maybe Marie, why don’t you jump in. Tell us.

Marie Gosal:

Yeah, I’d love to. So, my background before I started working at MetaLab was always sort of traditional agencies or in house teams where we were physically co-located. And I had this preconceived idea that the optimal way for creatives to collaborate was to be in shared spaces because you have these opportunities for organic discussion and critique and I didn’t believe there was a digital equivalent to that thing that happens when you look over on someone’s monitor and see what they’re working on. And so, I guess the biggest surprise for me has been that when you work on a distributed team like MetaLab you have this opportunity to ritualize, sharing work in progress. And one of the things we do is end of day updates.

So, no matter what time zone, what location you post, what you’ve been working on and it’s like a forcing mechanism. So, it makes us share early and share often. Those are really strong principles for us.

Kaz Brecher:

I love it.

Marie Gosal:

And so, I find myself 15 years into my career and creative collaboration is at its peak for me. We have lots of great tools as well, like a Nero and Figma where we’re literally in the same art board. And so it’s a pretty exciting time I think for collaboration.

Kaz Brecher:

Amazing. I was going to ask about tools. So, for the folks who are joining us, we’ll post some takeaways. But yeah, things like Miro are great and it is really interesting to see the difference between when you’re in there together and when you’re in different spaces.

Marie Gosal:

Totally.

Kaz Brecher:

James, what about you?

James Hobbs:

Yeah, so I think one of the most surprising things for me is actually kind of head on Kaz when you were introducing the question as the different modes of working synchronously and asynchronously. And I think for me, that’s been really interesting to see on a distributed team and to dig into that a little bit deeper is I think when we’re an agency, and I’ve worked in house before where you have these moments of collaboration and then you have these moments and then individual work but there’s a lot of things that fit in between those moments. There’s walking from the whiteboard and the meeting room to your desk to do something, work. And it’s not like those modes change really easily. But what I’ve noticed in working on a distributed team is there’s this binary way of working.

There are these really deep pockets of collaboration that happen and especially for our team because we have people located all over the globe, we have time zone differences to work with as well.

Kaz Brecher:

I was going to ask that, yeah.

James Hobbs:

So sometimes our team only has like an hour or two each day to catch up. So there are these moments that are on zoom, that are in tools that Marie talked about where we are collaborating really intensely, but then there’s this context shift and this mode shift of working where all of a sudden you are able to do really deep work and to refine your work and what I’ve noticed that there is a really interesting layer of creativity or layer of new creativity that comes with that where some people, when you’re in collaborating richly, you’re sparking ideas, you’re building off one another, you’re validating one another’s ideas that then you can immediately switch and get down to that deep work and execute and refine and then you come back and meet with your team and it happens again. This is like a daily cycle for us at, at MetaLab and the products that we build and the teams that we work with and there’s just some really amazing creativity that comes from that layering and the dual modes of working.

Kaz Brecher:

Yeah. It’s part of what I love about what you’re saying too, and to bridge to the speaker we just had before with what Rachel was saying is knowing your people and knowing what their rhythms are and supporting that awareness of what works. I realized I didn’t show my match to the image, but this is my match. Coffee is always within reach for me. And so just sort of knowing what things are necessary for people to be participating. It sounds really silly to have it, be coffee, but I’ve got my routine, I know that I work really well solo when I’m doing thinking and strategy work. It’s very different than when I’m in this sort of collaborative popcorn mode. I also think just in listening to you, I wonder for both of you, I mean, Marie, I don’t have much visual for your context.

We chatted with James the other day there but I feel like I have a virtual bookstore in my apartment and so very often one of the things when I’m working with creative teams is inviting people to bring that stuff into the discussion. We’ve now got this multiplied reference library, whether it’s a kid’s toy or something else to help illuminate what we’re doing as opposed to all of us being in a conference room. So actually we have an opportunity to use all kinds of different things. Does that come up for you guys and tell us just a tiny bit about the size of your teams? You said different time zones.

Marie Gosal:

Yeah, that absolutely rings true for us. In terms of our team size. What are we doing? 60 on a creative team? Nearing that anyway.

James Hobbs:

Just with 60 yeah.

Marie Gosal:

Yeah. We have some clusters of folks that are in Vancouver and Victoria and Pacific Northwest, but we also have a pretty large contingent that’s distributed. So as far away as South Africa and Sweden.

Kaz Brecher:

Okay.

Marie Gosal:

And it’s really important like you… I love what you’re bringing up about backgrounds because often what helps prompt the culture of our team is discussion about what’s going on. Like, Oh my gosh, it’s snowing in Sweden. Tell me about that or especially during the time of covid, we’re often seeing each other’s pets and children and it’s just-

Kaz Brecher:

Yes.

Marie Gosal:

… in the whole human which is a real gift actually.

Kaz Brecher:

That’s one of my top takeaways, is be human. Let it… Maybe wear pants, let’s maintain some appropriateness but be human. So, we have about five minutes left and I wanted before we take a few questions, I do want to ask one quick thing though, which is of course the pitfalls to this. Just as a word of warning. There’s so much to be learned. So I’m curious, what have you learned through your trial and error on what not to do with remote work? What are the must do’s to make sure you can pull it off? So maybe just a minute and a half each.

James Hobbs:

Yeah. I can jump in really quickly. So I think for me it’s all about labeling the playing field. And I’ve worked with teams before where some folks have been remote and some folks have been co-located and that’s how things work at MetaLab as well. We have two offices where people are co-located, but a lot of the team is distributed and in the past, the agencies I’ve worked with and teams I’ve worked with remote folks have felt like second class citizens. They’re the ones that miss out on speaking out because they can’t unmute themselves in enough time or they can’t see the white board if people are in the room together. So, one thing that has really come up for me is the feeling of isolation that those folks have and not feeling part of the team or the conversation or the project and task at hand.

So one thing that we try and do a really hard at MetaLab is label the playing field and actually have those remote folks feel like first class citizens. We actually build our culture almost remote first in a way to take care of the people and put ourselves in the people’s shoes that are remote. So some things we do are, even if people are co-located in an office, and we are working with remote folks, making sure that everyone jumps on their own computer for a zoom call even if they are sitting next to each other. We use tools like [inaudible 00:09:46] that allow everyone to get in and be involved even if they are in different parts of the world who have laggy internet or something like that. And then we do make sure, I think someone mentioned this earlier that everyone has a chance to speak on the call. I think this is Rachel in her last talk that a speakers list is really important to make sure that everyone has the ability to be part of the conversation. So really treating remote folks like first class citizens is really important.

Kaz Brecher:

Yeah, and a great byproduct of that is if you design with remote first, it typically makes the in-person work better. So there’s not really a harm in that either, those practices. Marie, what about you? What’s a must do?

Marie Gosal:

Yeah, so pitfalls. A personal learning for me is when you work on a distributed team, you have to check in more frequently. I think this is… It’s easy to miss some of the nonverbal cues. For me personally, when I’m struggling, one of my tells is these big, deep sighs. You miss that on Slack and you even miss that on zoom sometimes when I’m like a tiny muted zoom thumbnail, you’re not going to get that. And so, one of the things I’ve learned and it’s really important to me now is checking in frequently and explicitly to make sure I know how folks are doing. Yeah, that’s been one of my biggest takeaways.

Kaz Brecher:

Yeah, it’s a great one. And I would add to that before we do some really quick takeaways, I’m watching Jane’s face, I know how much time we have, is on the note of both checking in and remote work, especially when you’re juggling distances. You mentioned laggy connectivity, James. We do have differences in digital access as well as English as a second language. If you’re using English as a first language and you’re working with remote teams and even if English is your first language, not everyone is as comfortable with written language. So the same thing as the equivalent of a sigh. We may find that for some people suddenly shifting to primarily written communications can be challenging. So even that, having these kinds of check-ins, paying attention to what modes you’re using, hopping on a call, whatever that is, I’ve found that that’s really helpful too because people will sometimes say different things than they would put it in writing. So, I just really quick, we’re just going to list off and then we’ll take questions. We’ll elaborate later. But top three takeaways, James, for creativity at a distance.

James Hobbs:

Okay. First one for me is make time for non-work talk. The second one is embracing flexible schedule. So your schedules and the people that you’re working with. And the other one is experimenting with tools. There’s no one size fits all tool for remote work. So try out countless numbers of them, break them, stretch them, and you might figure out something that works for your team.

Kaz Brecher:

Great. Thank you. Marie, what about you?

Marie Gosal:

Okay, my top three. So the first one is remote rituals. It’s important to creative teams, but really any team. We have a cool one at MetaLab. It’s actually happening right now. We have gif Fridays. So right now everyone on our creative team is posting a gif with no comment, no text. That just reflects how their week went. So it’s creating those little moments. Super important. The second one is the power of asynchronous collaboration. So, ditching that idea that you have to be in a room to brainstorm and embracing that ping pong thing, which is by the way, super great for introverts.

Kaz Brecher:

Yeah.

Marie Gosal:

Some time to process and to contribute in an equal way. And my final one is, flexibility unlocks creative autonomy. And so what I mean by that is, it’s like handrails versus guardrails approach. So, our end of day updates, for example, folks are free to, if they want to drop a Loom video, if they want to leave a physical sketch, if they want to leave a prototype or a screen cap, it’s really up to them. So if you set the structure but then leave folks room to express themselves in the way that feels most natural, that’s a top tip.

Kaz Brecher:

Amazing. And mine are really short. Be human, be who you are, it makes the work richer, know what you need to make it work and have it within arms length and summarize next steps in writing because people hear different things when they’re stressed out. It’s always helpful to have some capture. And with that, Jane, what question would you like to take as you’ve been scanning the chat?

Jane Garza:

Yeah, I think they’re really great. One here from Amanda. So, what advice do you have for priming team members who are lawyers and social workers and not used to being creative or feeling the weight of this moment differently than designers? How do we level the playing field on creativity as a practice?

Marie Gosal:

Oh, that’s a great one. Well I can share something which is that, oftentimes we’re working with clients who aren’t necessarily creative practitioners and so we have to do some work to make sure, you know, get rid of some of those feelings like, Oh I don’t… I’m not creative, I’m a CTO or whatever. So we do a lot to just allow that. Everyone is creative, you’re going to have a perspective to share. Don’t worry about the quality of your drawings, but please like participate with us.

James Hobbs:

Yeah, totally. We actually have a few exercises as well that we run. Like Marie said, a lot of the stakeholders that we work with aren’t necessarily creatively minded or don’t come from typically creative industries. So there are some tools, and we can probably post some after in the [inaudible 00:14:52] of the chat that actually helped kind of break down the barriers between folks that are more traditionally creative and those that aren’t. And a lot of those are ideation practices, games that help. And a lot of it is about just like actually breaking down boundaries and opening up communication for people who say, even in the game that we played with Kaz earlier on, it broke the ice and also laughing and smiling.

So they’re all little techniques like that that actually can create and it’s honestly I think with remote conversation and remote meeting and remote creativity or anything, it’s about creating that kind of open communication where people feel comfortable to voice their opinions and can feel like they can jump in and jump out. So there are some tools that I think no matter what industry you’re in can help break the ice and get down to those conversations. So we can definitely share some of those afterwards.

Kaz Brecher:

Yeah. Well what I’d love to do Jane, I was going to say on that note to speak, to wrap this up, I’d love to close with something that goes right to the heart of this and that idea of the mindsets that we bring to both remote work, but also are we creative? So I know I can’t see you all, but everyone on the phone, if you would please point to the ceiling. You’re going to point as if your finger is a pencil and I would like you to draw a clockwise circle on the ceiling. So as if your fingers, a pencil, draw a clockwise circle and now you’re going to bend your elbow and keep drawing it. Bend your elbow and bring your hands down. Bring it all the way down and look down now what direction is it going?

Hopefully for some of you it’s counter-clockwise. What happened? We change perspective. We change perspective and I love using, yeah because I love seeing people do it. Yes this is your next party trick and you could do it remotely. But the point here really is we often don’t have to change what we’re doing but changing our perspective opens up so much potential and whether that’s how you view your lawyers, your social workers, everyone is creative and especially out of the office settings, we really do have a chance in being human with each other to bring in the more playful aspects of who we are and what we have to contribute. So thank you so much Marie, James, Jane. Thank you Nobel for hosting this. I hope those of you who joined us, we will tweet our takeaways but thanks for playing.

Jane Garza:

Thank you all so much. This was so lovely. I so appreciate you joining. I think it’s such a great talk on how to level that a little bit so that everyone feels comfortable around creativity and doesn’t feel like we’re all coming in a different ability, but instead, hearing everyone think out loud and everyone trying to pair the right photos together in such a nice opener and framing for this. So appreciate it.

James Hobbs:

Thanks everyone.

Published March 30, 2020

You might also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.