How To Ward Off “Zoom Zombies” And Boost Creativity

Productivity has not necessarily suffered from remote work, but creativity is another story. Here's how to foster creative collaboration with hyper-distributed teams.

With Google’s recent announcement that its employees will be able to work from home until at least summer 2021, the tech giant joins a string of companies instituting new work-from-home policies. Recent surveys of corporate leaders indicate that 82 percent of corporate leaders plan to continue remote work at least part time in the future. What’s clear is that remote working has extended beyond an immediate coronavirus-induced experiment.

The upside is employees have remained productive while working remotely – indeed, even more productive than they were before, in some cases. But this newfound productivity comes at the cost to creativity. While many companies have debunked the myth of low productivity from remote work, this challenge still remains: establishing creative collaboration and bringing in outside perspectives with hyper-distributed teams.

The longstanding assumption is that people must collaborate in-person to achieve this goal but the pandemic has both hampered and challenged this notion. What we find is that dial-in-from-home collaboration is possible but it often fails to be intellectually stimulating. Who hasn’t waded through tedious video calls, which are more akin to the Walking Dead-zombie version of Hollywood Squares with colleagues who appear fatigued or seemingly lifeless? (Nine out of 10 people admit to daydreaming during meetings, if you were unaware.) There is one method, however, that has shown promise in fostering innovative environments remotely: virtual ideation forums.

Of course, the idea of convening online to brainstorm is not novel nor does the innovation lie within the concept; the sweet spot is in the design and structure of these convenings. If built with the appropriate parameters, virtual forums can spur some of the best breakthroughs for teams in digital workplaces.

For instance, Clareo recently worked with a multinational resources company that wanted to completely rethink the mining system, dramatically reducing the footprint, cost and environmental impact of mineral extraction in previously uneconomic deposits. We achieved comparable results to in-person ideation sessions, producing more than one thousand ideas which in turn were trimmed to prioritize nearly 25 concepts. Of those, five new mining systems were pitched to VC investors and company executives at the end of the forum.

There are elements of human interaction that we cannot recreate—even delivering a snack basket to each participant could not make up for the lack of informal dinner conversations and networking. However, you can avoid turning your employees into Zoom zombies. So how can you make a virtual forum transform into a destination for both creative input and output while escaping the boredom of a seemingly endless video call?

• Bring in a diverse, highly curated set of participants. Look for a mix across established companies, start-ups and even academia to bring in a diverse range of viewpoints. Interview every potential participant and then make sure you have a broad set of participants, from both an expertise and diversity perspective.

• Simplify the number of digital tools needed. At Clareo, we found that keeping the technology as simple as possible is key in minimizing technical snafus. Even in our most complex, multi-day sessions, we only need a video-conferencing platform, a virtual whiteboard tool and a platform that allows for direct messaging and information sharing amongst the participants. Invest in platforms such as Zoom, Miro, Gather and Slack to facilitate breakouts, knowledge sharing and brainstorms. (You can stretch Miro’s capabilities from simply capturing sticky notes online to serving as a multimedia stimulus and facilitation platform with dozens of boards.)

• Create opportunities for connection. Design activities so that participants work in a variety of different groups of different sizes—from pairs to breakout groups of up to eight. Research finds that small groups are more productive. Participants in our sessions have highlighted that this allows them to meet many other participants and allows networking to occur.

• Design “serendipity” into the program. Since there are few opportunities for random collisions, build these into the plan. Devise ideation rounds that pair participants randomly together. Another option is to create virtual networking events to mix and match participants, and give participants small ideation activities to complete with another participant to increase the number of “random” interactions.

• Redesign the timeline. Rather than cramming all the ideation into a few days, break up meetings into bite-sized pieces of a few hours a day over several days. Participants will appreciate that they have the chance to reflect on their ideas between sessions. These mini-breaks also allow a more normal workday to occur around ideation—with no time lost to travel or jet lag!

• Diverge and converge. Broad exploratory approaches, essential for ideation on new transformational ideas, require divergence-convergence cycles. Across several sessions, repeated iterations of taking deep dives to explore an issue (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking). As a result, the process helps to prioritize solutions while ensuring inclusivity and inspiration.

• Include artistic elements. Integrate artistic elements in your ideation sessions to spark creativity. For example, hire a graphic designer to develop sketches in real time as participants are developing concepts in the sessions. You can take it a step further by premiering a musical score with a business theme in mind, as well. Some studies suggest that music can improve cognitive performance.

Virtual forums organize and prioritize key ideas and strengthen relationships with potential partners, some of whom they may not already know well. Unexpectedly, we found some key benefits of the virtual environment were:

• the ending pitches were higher quality and participants were better prepared, as participants had more time to reflect between sessions;

• participants self-organized ways to continue building their ideas, compared to in-person sessions, and

• around a quarter of participants felt more comfortable sharing ideas virtually and/or felt the breaks between sessions helped them come up with better ideas.

Identifying and seizing new opportunities requires ingenuity, as well as exploratory approaches. To unleash creativity in a digital workplace requires careful planning and design to allow for divergence before convergence to pinpoint breakthrough ideas. Remote collaboration is with us for the foreseeable future, and companies are recognizing that a focus merely on survival is no longer sufficient. Companies cannot put off growth and innovation efforts—and they don’t have to. At times, the most constraints provide the most creative freedom.

Peter Bryant is a managing partner at Clareo and an advisory board member for various startups, along with the leading VC firm Chrysalix. Satish Rao is a partner at Clareo where he focuses on growth through new markets, products, channels and creating sustainable competitive advantage through innovation. Lauren Raouf is a principal at Clareo, a growth strategy firm, where she focuses on how to align organizations, people, and processes to deliver innovation and growth strategy