Can you work remotely and still be innovative?

Back in the 2010s when we here at SketchDeck (we provide design teams on demand) were building our first remote teams, we had a big fear: are we going to lose that creative magic that accompanies being in a room together and brainstorming? Will our product development and brand creativity take a nosedive?

We were afraid because we believed a popular notion born of Silicon Valley and Agency lore: great ideas are born from people sweating it out in an office cubicle, whiteboarding like their lives depended on it and sleeping under desks, cuddling their bean bags for warmth. We were so bought into this myth that we believed our company might cease to innovate once we weren’t in the same building.

But that never happened, and we now know better. The simple truth is that creative people are creative wherever and whenever they are: in the shower, on the way to work, out on a hike and yes, sometimes in that little stuffy cubicle. 

And as we figured out the basics of running a productive remote team, creativity and innovation continued to function as they had in the past – sometimes even better. As a result, we realized that the primary ingredients to creativity are things you can have both in person and remote.

Every day, we bring together around fifty people around the world to do creative work across the fields of design, marketing, product and branding. And every day, we see creativity and innovation flourish. In this article, we’ll tell you about what we learned and how we do fully-remote creative work.

Working from home is not something new

First of all, let’s dispel the myth: working from home is not a novel idea. 

It’s natural to think that remote work was born with the internet. But the reality is that before the industrial revolution, people mostly worked out of their own homes – blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, leatherworkers, and many others had their workshops set up at their residence, where they received clients and sold their goods. Commuting didn’t come along until much later, when factories needed workers physically present “in-house” to do their jobs.

This means that if you take history as a perspective, commuting to your workplace is the “new” and working from home is the “traditional”. Fast-forward to Wi-Fi, and now we can work remotely from our original workplace: home, sweet home!

Working from home is a good thing

There’s a reason home was the original workplace. While many companies still hold fast to their physical offices, working from home can be beneficial not only for employees, but companies and even the earth.

It’s no secret that employees crave flexibility – A Gallup poll found that 35% of employees would change jobs to have flexible work situations where they can choose to work offsite full time. Working remotely can allow employees to more easily manage childcare, doctors appointments  and travel – things that might impede a traditional workday at an office. 

However, remote employees are not the only winners – companies with remote workers reap the benefits, as well. Telecommuting allows you to hire outside of the traditional commuting distance, providing access to a larger pool of talent. Not only that, but the talent is able to produce work with 40% fewer errors when given location autonomy. And when it comes down to dollars and cents, you can save money in the form of office rent, hardware, utilities, snacks, coffee and more. 

Last but certainly not least, let’s consider life on Mother Earth. There are a few obvious positive environmental effects from remote work, like the fact that highway vehicles used on daily commutes contribute 34,8% of nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions, a gas that can cause inflammations of the airways, smog and even acid rain. Remote work helps reduce fossil fuel consumption and lower carbon emissions, alleviating air pollution rates and health problems.

Remote work is a natural consequence of technology. Soon enough it will be the rule and not the exception, as 64% of millennials are excited about flexible hours and the possibility to work from home. 

Not everything is a bed of roses, though. The transition to remote work can be challenging – so you need to be aware of the obstacles you may face so you can actively work to prevent them and keep the creative juices flowing. 

Remote work challenges

Here are a few problems we like to call “creativity killers”, as they undermine our life quality and ultimately our creative capacity. While not all are only experienced when working remote, they all can manifest themselves in a remote setting: 

  • Distractions: even though there aren’t coworkers dropping by to ask how your weekend was, it can be even harder to keep your focus when working from home. Family, pets, phone, doorbell… have we mentioned kids? 
  • Loneliness: this problem is the opposite of the previous one. We’re social creatures, and if we stay too long without human interaction, sooner or later we’ll catch ourselves talking to the ferns. 
  • Health: if the body is not healthy, the mind won’t work properly. In other words, working from home does not mean becoming a couch potato. 
  • Overworking: a 2019 research showed that remote workers put in 1.4 more days every month, or 16.8 more days every year. While that’s a good thing, there is such a phenomenon as “too much of a good thing”. 
  • Lack of stimuli: for some people, remote work means going from bed to the computer and from the computer to bed, with a few pauses to eat, go to the bathroom and shower. That spells trouble when our brains need different stimuli to spark creativity.
  • Poor time management: if anything can greatly harm creativity, it’s leaving everything for the last minute. When we don’t give enough time for information and ideas to sink in, the work can feel rushed – producing a “meh” instead of a “wow”. 

If you’re not careful, each of these things can hinder your creative journey. That’s why we suggest doing the following: 

  • Set up a distraction-free zone. Find a proper place where you can work without being bothered, whether it’s a room in your home, a coworking space or a coffee shop. Noise-cancelling headphones are a great investment if you enjoy listening to music while you work!  
  • Take breaks to interact with others. Zoom your colleagues for a coffee break, or partake in a hobby with your friends to prevent the infamous “cabin fever”.
  • Stay healthy. According to the Mental Health Foundation, eating fruit, vegetables, nuts and other fresh foods can enhance your well being and reduce depression. Exercise, drink lots of water and try not to overdo the coffee, especially at night – you’ll see your mind flourish as a result.
  • Maintain a work-life balance. When your work can be conducted on your computer or phone, it can be easy to work 24/7. Take care to not fall into this trap as working too much kills productivity, especially if you’re a creative worker. Not only it will stress you out, but it will also compromise your health and your sleep. Take your well-earned time off and do something you enjoy! 
  • Make sure you feed not only your body, but your brain. Challenge yourself to read a different kind of book than those you’re used to, listen to different music, or maybe grab a pen and start pouring your ideas in a journal. 
  • Practice good time management. Keep tabs on your to-do list and whenever possible, use a time-tracking device.

Now that you know the basics, let’s get into the core of this piece: how to foster innovation in a remote work environment!

The primary ingredients for creativity

Once you have the right people and skills in place, you just need to provide your team with the tools to collaborate and communicate – and from this well, let innovation spring.

Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Demarcate time specifically for idea generation. When surrounded by Slack pings and deadlines on your laptop, it’s easy to be stuck in execution mode. Time spent with the express purpose of creating a list or doodle board of ideas is essential.
  • Similarly, when on a video call to get creative, make extra effort to set the right tone. A lot of body language is lost when on a camera, so warm up the group: meet-and-greet with anyone new to the group, and have some fun chit-chat to get everyone comfortable together.
  • Generate ideas with others or solo – whatever works best for you. Coming up with ideas in isolation then bringing them all together is efficient for group time, but if you’re a social animal, embrace the energy of idea ping-pong.
  • Know what information capture works best for you when you’re in flow. After all, a keyboard may not do the trick in every situation. If you want to draw things out or capture ideas orally, set yourself up with some alternate hardware. Don’t hesitate to buy a big whiteboard for your kitchen if that’s your jam.
  • Generate, then filter: the clichéd rules of brainstorming sessions are vital. Always “Yes, and…” 
  • Make sure to never stop capturing ideas and sharing knowledge with your team. When remote, it’s easy for info to fall into the dark recesses of the ether. To combat this, we like to use wikis (e.g. Notion) and sprint boards (e.g. Jira) to share our thoughts, prioritise and then implement them.

Even armed with the tools outlined above, though, you may still be wondering – what about creativity in the long-term? 

Working on longer term creative projects

Many projects in the professional world span longer than a single idea session, such as delivering a big new product feature or rebrand.

To be creative in the long term, you need more structure and process, which we’ll outline in a minute. You can think about larger projects on two levels: the short term idea sprints (which are facilitated by the tips in the earlier section) and then longer term creative execution and guidance.

Once again, though, the foundation for long-term creativity does not depend on being in an office together. What does it require? Good process and organisation.

To successfully execute long-term creativity:

  • You need someone responsible for the long term creative health of a project. Over longer time periods, projects can experience creative drift and stagnation. Someone with experience needs to watch and safeguard, intervening with feedback/direction tweaks when needed.
  • You need a well defined process – it needs to be very clear who the project is with, and where it goes. For our design work, we cycle Project Manager -> Designer -> Creative Review -> Quality Review -> Project Manager. Having this process down gives everyone space to be creative.
  • Software is vital for your remote process to let everyone know the status of each piece. We created our own collaboration platform (SketchDeck) that tracks every design project for us, managing deadlines and communication. Other platforms also exist for the purpose of fostering team-based work management, such as Asana or Basecamp.

Put all of that together and you’re set up for world-class innovation and creativity.

So is there any reason to get together in a room?

We’re a fully remote teamwe don’t even have an office—but we do physically get together strategically throughout the year. We see in-the-flesh-meetings as a valuable tool that complements all of the remote-working tools we just outlined.

There are a couple of things we get from being in the same room that we don’t virtually. Firstly, it helps build team rapport. We have a ton of fun together (and schedule a lot of time to enjoy ourselves) and it helps grow our bonds, which then make us more virtually cohesive. Secondly, we find getting together brings a special energy to work. To harness that, we kick off big initiatives by picking a city to meet in, going through plenty of slides, then celebrating and doing silly activities together (like a costume BBQ or playing disc golf).  

We’ve experimented a bunch to figure out what cadence and investment makes sense for us. We save money on not having an office, but the cost to get people together quickly racks up. Therefore, we like to make sure we are strategic in planning in-person meetups and that we make the most of these opportunities.

As a result, we try to get as much of the company together as possible once a year for a big annual meetup. In addition, we have quarterly get-togethers for individual teams when we feel there’s enough to discuss and work on together. For example, gatherings can be conducted to help research new projects (e.g. Product literally watching the Design Team work over their shoulders then peppering them with questions).

So if you decide to go fully remote, it doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) get together in person. Simply decide what makes the most sense for your team’s finances and morale and go from there! 

Happiness makes remote work go round

For innovation and creativity to thrive, you need a strong, supportive remote work culture. That’s right – perhaps one of the most important ingredients needed for creativity is happiness! A happy workplace reduces stress, increases productivity and inspires creativity. 

To close out, here’s a few tips on how to make remote fun and keep your spirits high:

  • PJ + slippers: the dress code is… whatever you feel comfortable with! No need for ties, fancy shoes or even shoes at all, unless you really love wearing them. But let’s be honest: Nothing beats PJ + slippers and a hot cup of your favorite coffee, tea or cocoa.
  • Virtual coffee breaks: get your fav colleague on Zoom, pour yourself some coffee and get a few snacks. Why, you could even do some work while you’re together! Play some music, triage emails together and share some tips.
  • MTV Crib Day: make a tour of your own home, show your pets, your workplace, what’s inside your fridge, or even the mess your kids are doing and ask your colleagues to do so as well (if you’re brave enough, do it in pj+slippers).
  • #watercooler: remote workplaces can have their own water cooler gathering, too! Use Slack or other platforms to dedicate space to talk about soap operas, trending shows, share pictures of pets, family, hobbies, and share music you love listening to while working.

If you’ve more questions about remote work or remote design teams, we’re always happy to talk. And of course, if you’d like to talk about your design needs, hit us up!

About the Author

David Mack

David Mack

David is co-founder of SketchDeck and enjoys writing about design, brand strategy and marketing.

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