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how to create innovative ideas with remote teams

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Everyone has creativity within them. It’s just a matter of unlocking that creativity

Christina Canters | Founder and CEO of The C Method

Tapping into your employees’ creative streak can be a real challenge. In times of Covid-19 (yes, sorry for using the “C” word) and the resultant lock-down, many businesses had to shift towards remote work and are now facing unforeseen challenges.

At the same time, organisations such as Automattic (the company behind WordPress, Tumblr, WooCommerce, and many more) have over 600 employees working remotely from more than 60 countries. So, it is possible to make teleworking a success and with the right measures, you will be able to create innovative solutions from your team’s home office. Here are my Top 4 hacks to unlock your digital workforce’s creativity:

1. Embrace flexibility

A big advantage of working remotely is that your employees can establish their own schedule and choose their work environment. That gives them the freedom to work whenever and wherever they feel inspired – which is what you want, because that is when they perform at their best.

To make things easier for your employees, try not to outline every single day, and give your team a wider time frame to work on creative tasks. Having worked in the busy world of marketing agencies, I know that people tend to want everything “asap” (as soon as possible), but this is not how it works when it comes to innovation. Still not convinced? Here is a brief digression:

Do you know what Gmail and Post-It notes have in common? Both companies were invented during Innovation Time Off (ITO). Yes, companies like Google and 3M encourage their employees to dedicate part of their time to side projects. Although Google claims to have invented the 20 %-time policy (where 20% of paid work time is allocated to personal projects), there is a fair chance they got the idea from 3M, who introduced the 15 % rule in 1948.

If these schemes seem too drastic for your company, try hackathons (a 24-48 hours event during which people build, create and deliver a product), collaborative side projects, and business case study competitions as an alternative. And remember: Twitter, Slack, and Groupon also all started as side projects.

2. Foster regular communication

For innovation to be truly successful, it also needs to be impactful. In order to link these two qualities, you need to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains and this is 37.7 % more likely to be achieved by teams than by individuals.

So whilst you want to give your employees the flexibility to work where and when they want, you also need to make sure they do not feel isolated, given idea generation is a highly collaborative process. The key to preventing isolation is regular communication with and among your employees.

Face-to-face video calls are a great way to help remote teams maintain human connections, which improves their ability to collaborate globally and accelerates decision making. Hence, encouraging regular video conferences and meetings will be a great benefit for both your employees as well as your company.

If you happen to organise a video meeting in which your team meets for the first time, or in a constellation they are not used to, make sure to schedule some extra time at the beginning of the video call to introduce or announce everyone including their role. This will increase everyone’s engagement as they will know who they are dealing with and that their participation is clearly appreciated.

3. Make team sessions fun

Sometimes, you have to get your whole team to be creative at the same time. When planning your video call, include enough time for fun activities that bring everyone in the right mood to innovate. The trick is to give your team members the feeling that they are not only there to work but also to have some fun.

Why not start with an ice breaker question? Although they are often used in a social context, they can also be an easy way to launch into a broader conversation. For example, if you are working on a design task, the question “what colour are you and how does being that colour make you feel” could be an ideal starting point. For more inspiration for fun team questions, click here.

Another fun way to get creativity started is called the “Anti-Problem”. During this game, your team members have to come up with solutions to solve the opposite problem of your actual problem. So for example, if the problem you are getting them to solve is how to increase user engagement, during the ‘Anti-Problem’ game, you would be getting them to solve the ‘fake’ problem of how to decrease user engagement.

This game makes your participants view the problem from an entirely new perspective and encourages “out-of-the-box” thinking. Coming up with silly ideas and maybe even getting everyone to vote on the “worst” possible solution is another fantastic way to bond and to create a relaxed atmosphere.

Once everyone is having fun and feeling comfortable, you can start brainstorming to solve the actual problem at hand. Some ways to do this: Mind Mapping, Round-Robin, Six Thinking Hats, and many more. They all have their raison d'être, and can be chosen depending on the circumstances, such as the number of participants.

4. Use the right tools

In order to benefit the most from your team’s geographical flexibility, make sure to also provide your team members with plenty of mobile-friendly tools.

Ideally, choose cloud-based solutions that can be easily accessed and are both user-friendly and secure at the same time. In reality, it is hard to find (affordable) software that meets all these criteria, therefore, you have to set your priorities for what is most important to your team.

Some popular video conferencing software include Google Hangouts Meet, Zoom Meetings and GoToMeeting. As there has been a lot of discussion regarding Zoom Meeting’s security issue, you might want to read this helpful article about the popular tool, in order to ensure your team ideas’ safety and privacy.

Furthermore, since not everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinions during a video call, you can enable them to contribute with their ideas by writing them down. This will make it easier for any introverts in the team to participate in a way that feels comfortable to them.

For day-to-day communication between your team, I highly recommend Slack (no affiliation, I just really like this tool). It is my go-to tool to communicate with individuals and groups as it is easy to use on all devices and it is also free.

For a more hands-on ideation process, online whiteboards and mind maps are useful tools to get everyone involved. Depending on your company size, budget and use case, there are multiple online solutions that may suit your needs. Definitely worth checking are Miro, Mural and Coggle.

Following these tips is a great start to help your remote team generate new ideas. I know how hard it can be to adjust to a new situation, but use this unique workplace circumstance to your team’s advantage and to test new ways of collaborating and communicating between your team members. Try what works best for you and let us know what you find in the comment section.

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About the author: Vera L. B. Grablechner is a Digital Innovation and Business Consultant and supports businesses in developing innovative solutions from ideation to realisation and implementation. Get in touch with her on LinkedIn.


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