Brainstorming from a Distance: How Distributed Teams Collaborate
We asked six creative leaders how they set the scene for creative exchanges and productive collaboration in the age of remote work and distributed teams.
For many creative teams, a typical brainstorming session might mean a huddle around a whiteboard, or an impromptu back-and-forth over a coffee break. With remote work on the rise, the nature of group dynamics is changing and so must our collaboration methods.
We reached out to creative team leads to see how they are adapting to collaboration and brainstorming from a distance—still a necessity for any creative project. Some are WFH veterans with a well-developed workflow, others quickly adapting to leading remotely, but all are focused on connections and strong, clear communication. The creative leaders we spoke with shared insights into keeping their teams inspired, motivated, and on the same page.
Build the structure for success
Structure, clarity, and consistency are keystones of remote work days. Each creative leader we spoke to had a specific routine in place that anchored their weeks and days.
For Vida Cornelious, Chief Creative Officer at experiential agency Fake Love, this takes the form of a daily block of time to hear from every team member. “Setting a daily 15 minute morning team video check-in is a simple way to keep everyone connected and accountable. Promoting open dialogue for team members to share concerns, challenges or successes is a way to give everyone an equal voice.”
Roanne Adams, who helms the team at RoAndCo studio as Chief Creative Director, adopts a similar daily agenda. “Every morning we have a standing meeting so that we all align on what we’re working on. This little check-in helps set the stage for the day ahead.” She has also found that structure is imperative even for casual brainstorming. “Creativity needs limitations. So I find that having a clear creative brief and an account manager in attendance really helps usher the process along.”
Even with everyone remote, there are still ways to get everyone on the same page—literally. For John Koenig, Creative Director at World Famous, it means picking up the phone. “Chatting on the phone with my colleagues while everyone’s working on the same document is my favorite way to edit a piece of writing. There’s a simplicity of focus there that I find creatively stimulating.”
Mike Treff, President of Code and Theory, has found that his approach is rooted in two tenets. “We keep coming back to two core strategies for effective communication: preparation and transparency.” In fact, remote work has been a boon for his team’s productivity. “In many ways, this has helped us progress faster and more effectively—being remote constantly forces prioritization of time, effort, and activities,” he explains. “We’ve found that people come to meetings more prepared, on time, and having done the prep work needed to maximize the efficacy of the shared time.”
Use “psychological shortcuts”
For creatives new to working from home, it can be a challenge to create sustained focus in a space that usually signals that it’s time to switch off from work. Even if you don’t have the means to set up a home office, you can use environmental tricks to signal to your brain that it’s time to clock in and shift gears.
For Koenig, that means creating a space that matches the work mindset. “As someone who works remotely 90% of the time, I found myself incorporating touchstones of the Seattle office into my workspace in Minneapolis—from music and snacks to my desktop wallpaper—to help cement my desk as a place where work feels natural. It’s a psychological shortcut to get myself into a certain mood.”
Protect the quiet moments
If your creative process typically thrives on ambient studio sounds or the buzz of a bustling cafe, it can be tough to embrace the silence of working from home. But this unexpected pause can be an ally. Take the time to understand your innate creative rhythm, and build in the time you need for your mind to spin free and wander.
Cornelious’ advice is to lean into those lulls. “Make peace with that silence and use it wisely. Schedule time for your brain to wander into a few ‘what if’ moments. Similarly, schedule creative time when you know your mind is most open to new ideas. Protect the time you need to think, and better thinking will emerge because of it.”
Adams knows that her creative process needs moments of uninterrupted calm. “I have my most creative ideas when I sit in silence, so if I have time and I know there is a creative brainstorm coming up in the schedule, I might close my eyes and meditate for a few minutes beforehand to clear my other thoughts out and get centered.”
Be your own editor
It’s easy to feel untethered if you rely on creative sparring with your team to produce work. And it is true that some of us are more physically isolated than before. While challenging, this shift also brings with it the chance to hone your self-editing skills, and develop an independence that can supercharge your creative instincts.
“We have to become better self editors. Walk away from your ideas, and come back to them with fresh eyes. Be critical and objective.” Cornelious recommends. “And when it is time to collaborate with others, you will be more open to new perspectives and approaches.”
Make it social
Ideas thrive when teams feel connected and comfortable enough to share what’s on their mind. When it comes time to voice those fleeting thoughts or sparks that have great potential, a welcoming environment is crucial to the creative process. For remote teams, building team camaraderie that creates a sense of community and receptiveness where the best ideas can take flight is all the more vital.
Stephanie Yung, Design Director at Smart Design, considers that every meeting starts with a chance to set the mood and strike the right note. “One simple way to stay connected is by starting off meetings with a quick ‘How is everyone doing today?’ This thoughtful question helps relax everyone and lets us more easily move onto the topic at hand.” Similarly, Koenig acknowledges this unusual time and asserts “it’s all the more important to let collaborative sessions be looser, chattier, and more digressive.”
Some managers have opted to schedule a pressure release into their team’s week, like John Robson, Technology Director at Fuzzco. “We have a recurring Friday meeting where the whole team gets together on a Hangout and attempts to play a game. It’s been a lot of fun!” His team is also newly bonding over other shared interests. “We’ve found that a lot of us are spending more time cooking lately, so we’ve opened up a Slack channel for recipes and food-selfies. Things like that have really gone a long way to keep the positive energy flowing.”
And for Adams, some much-needed physical release is on the calendar daily. “We have a scheduled ‘5 minutes of movement’ everyday where we all call in and dance together.”
Embrace familiarity to connect with your creative spark
While remote work may present obstacles for the uninitiated, it’s also a chance to see possibilities in new circumstances. With no commute, a safe, familiar space, and stretches of time alone, you could explore limits of your creativity and dig into more complex thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have had space for in an office.
Yung echoed this sentiment in her experience conducting remote research with prototypes and stimuli through Smart Design’s human-centered design process. “It’s not the first time participants have expressed they are more comfortable having personal conversations in the comfort of their own home versus a more formal research facility. The nuance is that they are in a safer environment and feel more free to share real feelings even more than through in-home ethnographies. What we’ve learned is that even though you’re remote, you can feel closer to people in some ways.”
Outside of your usual work environment, you have new visual influences to explore. “Be inspired by your space or the view outside the window.” Cornelious says. “And consider more honestly what aspects of your creative craft need work, and adjust. Learn a new skill, collaborate with someone you normally don’t work with.” Let yourself adapt and observe in ways you don’t typically give yourself space to explore.