How do you maintain a creative connected team when working from a distance

We have been ‘remote and proud’ since we first set up in early 2017, so we have had plenty of time to learn how to work as a team without a physical office. This is not about the general principles of home-working, which many freelancers have already written about (building a routine, avoiding distractions, finding time for turning off etc) instead this is about how to work together in roles which have traditionally been team-based and face to face. Our priority is to maintain ‘the 4 C’s’: the key pillars of team working which can face challenges in the office-less world:

  1. Communication

  2. Connection

  3. Culture

  4. Creativity

We also think it is important to acknowledge that, much as an office doesn’t suit everyone, one style of remote working is unlikely to work for everyone. So flexibility and openness are key. Obvious, but worth remembering.

1. Communication

Structure: More than with face to face we need to be a lot more explicit about what we are trying to get out of any communications. We need to be more structured about expectations and timelines, setting explicit deadlines and scheduled interim check-ins with a clear purpose, as there is less opportunity for the rolling check-in / feedback loop which is more common in offices.

Offline time: Obviously email overload is an issue in offices too however it is often exacerbated when remote working. We believe it is really important to break the ‘reply in 10 minutes’ email expectation (remote workers were found in a recent survey to feel more pressure to reply straight away and be ‘always on’). So it is important to be clear when you need an immediate response, or when an email is for information / can wait. Saying “this doesn’t require a reply now” really can go a long way.

The right people: working from home, its easy for diaries to become quickly overloaded with calls. People have a tendency to ‘over-invite’ on a phone call in a way they don’t in face to face meetings. We make sure we really interrogate who really needs to be on the call and how long it actually needs to be; no defaulting to one hour then building an agenda to fill the space.

Different channels: Additionally to allow people to take ‘email breaks’ to give periods of focus, or just time for lunch we have three clearly defined tiers of communication:

1) time critical / requires action within an hour or two – by iMessage (full details in email too)

2) non-urgent or for info – by email

3) non critical information and non project related idea sharing – by whatsapp (or slack)

Attention: We tend to suggest zooms shouldn’t go much over 1 hour, or at least have hourly 5-10 minute breaks if they do and ensure people feel they have permission to say when their attention is flagging.

2. Connection

One of the things people worry about when working remotely is loneliness, and it is important to ensure that the usual connection time happens as it would in an office, now more than ever.

Time to chat: We need to be clear to give space for chat, as you would on the way to an office meeting. We suggest clearly designating the first ~10 minutes of a call as ‘watercooler time’ but with a clear expectation to move onto the scheduled agenda after that (so no-one feels self-conscious for over-extending the chat!).

Sharing lunch: just being on a zoom over lunch and chatting as we would in the office can be great to stay connected and keep those all-too-important personal relationships.

Telephoning: we also have a low bar for picking up the phone, its not a habit many of us were in before going remote, but feels like it is an important way of staying connected, not just informed.

3. Culture

Trying to maintain a company culture virtually was one of the things that worried us the most, and we would acknowledge that until lockdown, (at least) monthly face-to-face catch ups were a large part of this. But we also looked at what makes our company culture and how to maintain this. As researchers we value being curious and open, and as a business we like to take a ‘people-first’ perspective on all our decision making.

Curiosity: we have 2 weekly recurring informal zoom calls for anyone who is around. Whilst there is usually a loose agenda, they are generally a free-forming space where we can share ideas and experiences of recent projects and stoke each others’ curiosity, taking the opportunity to always be learning.

Openness: we invite everyone in to the conversation and we try and share any business news with the wider team ‘live’, so everyone has an equal share in the business shape and development. This feels more important than ever when working remotely as it is easy for people to potentially feel distant from decisions.

People first: We have found a great benefit of remote working is that it is much more flexible to individual preferences. Offices can often feel like they were designed for extroverts, whereas remote working gives the opportunities for people who want to connect and chat, but introverts don’t have to feel obliged to participate as they might in the office. Not all of our connection times are mandatory, to respect different preferences.

4. Creativity

Much of our job involves deeper analytic thinking, not something you can squeeze in between conference calls, so the above are important principles to make space and time for creativity.

Sharing: One of the key things we have found useful is tangential inspiration, sharing lots: sharing insight, sharing podcasts, books, articles… and then making time to discuss these. This lateral stimulation really helps us build those new associations and ideas that are at the heart of creative thinking.

Un-Focus: email is often said to be the death of creativity, interrupting the thought process and leading to a more pragmatic less creative work-day. We suggest carving out space and encourage switching notifications off for a while, knowing that people will use another channel (as above) if it is urgent.

Live working: we also work on analysis sessions together, where we can discuss and add ideas as we share screens, virtual white boards or work on shared documents together. Zoom is great for all of this. Keeping our videos on also helps to keep us all engaged and ‘present’.

Default mode: we try and harness and nurture the ‘off moments’ and be aware of the need to switch off and do something else, like going for a walk, cooking, moving to a different room … all of which helps your neural networks make new connections and generate new ideas and aha moments. You’ll probably also get a nicer lunch too if you do this.

+44(0)207 117 2685

London, UK