Betsy Bula at GitLab, an all-remote company, asks if remote working models can truly deliver sustained creativity.
Is creativity held back by remote work or is this concern being dispelled by a new wave of highly creative remote and hybrid companies?
As social beings, don’t we need face-to-face interactions to create and prosper? Some research seems to agree. For example, an HP survey in 2020 found that 31% of EU workers felt less productive when they are not physically in the same space as their colleagues during the day.
To dispel such worries, we need to gain more understanding of what creativity means and what drives it in order to really know.
1. Specific processes drive creativity
When the pandemic struck, most companies had no choice but to quickly adopt “forced work-from-home” arrangements. But companies that are designed and built as all-remote organisations intentionally develop specific processes to ensure creativity. These include asynchronous work, where coworkers can work on a project or document without other stakeholders needing to be present, or do so over different time zones.
As a result, all-remote companies encourage contributions from all employees, irrespective of skills and experience, and promote greater overall creativity.
Companies that simply try to replicate physical office processes when shifting to remote, often end up defaulting to company hierarchies with their constrained interactions and meeting norms. In these organisations, senior management and established employees’ inputs are prioritised over the wider range of ideas that could be generated by a more egalitarian workforce.
Global data show the dangers: Cisco’s new Hybrid Work Index of 60 million monthly meetings worldwide found that fewer than half (48%) of participants are likely to speak in them.
Colocated companies seeking to boost creativity when adopting remote operations need to carefully design and migrate to remote-first processes.
2. Building trust
Where organisations work remotely, there is the opportunity to cast off traditional constraints and have everyone across the company contribute creatively and more regularly. To achieve this, it’s important to build a deeper level of trust and transparency with your other newly remote colleagues.
One way that all-remote companies achieve this is by establishing intentional informal communications, including regular coffee chats with colleagues across the organisation as well as non-work social events, to really get to know your team and what they can contribute. This is crucial since new talent joining the workforce is more likely than more experienced colleagues to feel isolated in a remote environment.
But encouraging creativity doesn’t depend on virtual-only processes: at GitLab, we’ve found that during non-pandemic times, teams gained great value from occasional in-person gatherings to focus on building relationships. This inclusive approach helped people contribute confidently and regularly to collaboration and brainstorming sessions once teams were working remotely and asynchronously again.
3. Organisations need transparency
All-remote companies have placed great emphasis on openness – inviting ideas and honesty – and make this happen through having simple internal structures and collaboration tools. Openness also means making creative information and tools available to anyone. It is crucial that this information is not locked up in hierarchies and siloed teams.
Remote teams depend on easily accessible documentation (online company handbooks and standardised tools like Google Docs and Slack) that enables everyone to have better, or equal, access to requisite knowledge. By documenting everything and having ‘live document’ meetings and collaboration sessions, creative brainstorming can actually happen across larger, more diverse groups of team members.
With a shared document open to all meeting participants, you’re not adding to a physical whiteboard that just gets erased at the end of the session.
4. Inclusive teams contribute creatively
In an age of restrictions as well as a volatile jobs market, remote work is often better for team resilience, inclusion, and wellbeing. This organisational design ensures that caregivers, people with varying abilities, and those who can’t relocate because of family obligations can still contribute creatively and deliver outstanding work.
While some employers believe that people need to physically be in an office to be productive, the data often say otherwise. ONS research indicated that remote work did not undermine UK productivity during Covid. Our own survey of 3,000 remote workers worldwide suggests they are generally happier and more creative – less than one in five worries about their creativity when not at work.
GitLab team members make stronger contributions because they’re given the freedom to shape their work around their lives. As a senior executive puts it: “[Previously], it was normal for me to leave the house before my wife and kids were awake, and to return after they had eaten dinner, five days a week. Now I spend tons more time with my family, while adding more value at my job.”
And one of our senior engineers says GitLab is “leveraging appropriate technologies and good process to ensure as much as possible is accessible to everyone, no matter their location or time zone.”
Openness and inclusivity underpins creativity
Remote work delivers creativity that matches and arguably exceeds that of physical offices and colocated environments. Research bears this out: An MIT Sloan research project analyzed the creativity of more than 5,000 participants in 1,300 groups and found that remote groups can be as effective as groups working face-to-face, and saw little difference in the collective intelligence of groups — their ability to work together on a range of tasks — between colocated and remote teams.
Despite the pandemic’s upheavals, organisations everywhere are acknowledging remote and hybrid work’s value, while remote workers say unequivocally that their focus is also sustained by increased flexibility, autonomy, and balance in their lives.
Betsy Bula is an all-remote evangelist at GitLab
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com