What Makes Remote Creative Teams Work

Since March, and until further notice, creative teams are being forced to work remotely. 

But is creativity even possible for remote teams? Or was Steve Jobs right when he said that “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions” that are only possible face-to-face?

Actually, remote teams can be creative and innovative—as many virtual marketing firms (including ours) know well. But they require a particular environment.

That environment was spelled out in a study by Dr. Jill Nemiro, a professor of organizational psychology at Cal Poly Pomona who had a prior career as a film editor in Hollywood. It’s one of the first robust studies of what makes virtual creative teams successful (and jibes with our 17-year experience in leading virtual creative teams).

Dr. Nemiro identified 11 environmental factors that influence remote creativity: 

1. The one must-have for creativity: Trust

Do team members trust each other in all aspects of their collaboration—including follow-up, on-time delivery, honesty, effectiveness, discretion?

Trust was by far the most important factor among the study’s respondents. Trust is difficult to establish, develops slowly, and depends on follow-through.

To drive home just how tough it is to gain trust, another creativity expert—Glenn Dutcher, professor of economics at Ohio University—found that even experienced remote workers do not trust other remote workers, at least at first. In the work environment, it appears that we are predisposed to distrust. 

Crucial to creativity

2. Acceptance of ideas and constructive tension

Are ideas encouraged, valued, and accepted without undue criticism? Is there a healthy sense of constructive tension that comes from a diversity of views and opinions?

For some respondents, the virtual environment actually made it easier to share ideas. They felt more comfortable and less threatened both in sharing and in receiving feedback. 

3. Freedom

Do team members feel free—to decide how and when to work? From micro-management? From outside constraints they feel are unnecessary? 

As you’d expect, respondents felt freer simply because they were alone, unsupervised, or in comfortable surroundings. But there was also something about the online experience that eases the pressure of “having to be creative” that respondents experienced when face-to-face.

4. Challenge

Is there a sense of challenge, whether from the task itself, its urgency, or a desire to go beyond the status quo?

The intrinsic motivation that arises from working against the odds, a challenging timeframe, or a difficult creative problem was just as achievable remotely as it was in person. 

Important to creativity

5. Goal clarity

Are the project’s goals clearly defined, continually clarified, and adopted by the entire team?

Goal clarity is tough enough with in-person teams. Members may think they heard the goals, leaders may think they’ve communicated them clearly, only to find later that the goals are still vague. In-person teams can solve this with a walk down the hall. For virtual teams, goals need to be confirmed and continually repeated.

6. Collaboration 

Is the team able to work well together on an interdependent task, a mutual interest, or a mutually intriguing idea?

There seemed to be no obstacle to the respondents’s ability to pull together, cooperate, and get in tune with each other.

7. Sufficient resources and time 

Does the team feel it has enough information, people, and technology? And enough time to be creative and experiment?

Much more so than with face-to-face teams, virtual teams can be quickly brought down by weak links. Just one member’s technological or other difficulty can affect the entire team.

Moving too fast, as virtual projects sometimes do, can slow projects down. When teams are rushed to the point where goals are unclear, the creative process becomes longer, as any veteran creative director can ruefully confirm. 

Facilitating creativity

8. Management encouragement

Is leadership encouraging, enthusiastic, and supportive of new ideas and methods? 

When management resorted to the status quo because it seemed more convenient or efficient, respondents felt it undermined creativity and innovation. 

9. Information sharing

Does the team regularly communicate, share results, provide information, and update findings?

Information is creativity’s raw material. But both too little and too much information can hinder creativity. Respondents wanted regular, consistent communications. 

10. Dedication and commitment

Is the team dedicated, intensely involved, and committed to the work? Can it work hard and persevere on tough tasks and problems?

A lack of commitment from any team member can wreck a project. And remote team members are just as sensitive to commitment as those working in person.

11. Personal bonds 

Are there personal connections among team members? Is there a “family-like” feeling or sense of connection that goes beyond their work? 

Dr. Nemiro was surprised and fascinated at how strongly members could form personal bonds, which she feels are critical for virtual creative teams—even where there was no face-to-face contact among the subjects.

Although the study was published in 2000, when there were fewer digital collaboration tools, we believe the human factors it uncovered make the study as relevant today as it was then.

Contact me if you’d like to read the full study. It includes a lot of great insights I haven’t shared on what makes creative teams successful in any environment. 

Related: How to Win Back Half Your Audience (Or More)