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The less we come together the more the value, experience and overall success of live meetings must increase. One solution is collaborative creativity.

The pandemic will pass, eventually, but in most offices, it seems unlikely that things will ever return the way they were. Suddenly, going to an office every weekday seems unnecessary. However, this poses new challenges and to confront them successfully companies will need to make radical changes in the way people meet to collaborate.

Previously most people habitually travelled to an office where they spent large chunks of time in live meetings, it was an acceptable (albeit often tedious) part of the status quo. Now that the majority have become accustomed to participating remotely in meetings they will find the effort and cost of commuting worthwhile only if the live experience of a meeting is much more valuable. Meanwhile, companies that embrace remote working will downsize their offices to accommodate only a fraction of their effective workforce at any given time and they too will be interested in maximising the value of time spent by employees in limited office space.

This, I hope, will lead to one of the defining differences of the pre and post Covid workplace – live meetings will become precious, not just because rarer, but also because they will be much better experiences and produce superior outcomes.

To accomplish this we must modernise our expectations of what coming together means and what it can achieve. The first consideration is that, if a task can be done via Zoom, Teams, etc. there is no technical justification to meet live. The past few months have proven that a large percentage of meetings fall into this category. At the same time, we have seen that meetings that require a certain level of active, collaborative participation do not work so well.

For example, collective problem solving is something that works best live. Fortunately, it can have many positive consequences – collaborative creativity regularly generates five forces: invention, empathy, self-discovery, realisation and cohesion. Crucially, these forces can mitigate some of the risks of long-term remote working.

Invention – is a form of exploration that is vital to personal growth and establishing collective identity and purpose. The use of creative exercises shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for occasions that demand radical innovation. For example, remote working signifies more individual autonomy and for teams and individuals to make sense of corporate directives and transform them into actions requires interrogation and negotiation. The tension between autonomy, constraints and task organisation can be resolved through group creativity.

Empathy – is key to understanding co-workers, clients and other stakeholders. There is a risk that over time remote working will produce individual bubbles of personal realities. Historically workplaces have tended to promote conformity, whereas today a diverse workforce is an asset. The use of creative exercises to promote mutual understanding and to encourage people to comprehend other viewpoints is a great way to increase the ability to work with and for others.

Self-discovery – improves people’s ability to interact with others. Insecurity often manifests itself as aggressiveness and a lack of flexibility. A slight miscomprehension of one’s role and contribution to a collective endeavour can be detrimental to overall performance. Creativity promotes imagination and experimentation, improving self-awareness and increasing confidence. Better empathy and self-discovery can improve the way teams work together and transform interactions between different internal functions.

Realisation – is motivating, people who are rewarded by their work are more productive and attentive. Creative activities are inherently rewarding and group creativity allows co-authorship of solutions. People who aren’t particularly predisposed to problem-solving can be involved and enjoy the satisfaction of contributing to a solution. When a group’s invention concerns the way the group functions, this collective sense of agency has a lasting positive effect.

Cohesion – has always been a characteristic of high performing teams. Remote working will directly challenge cohesion as physical distance chips away at mental and social affinity.

When we autonomously elaborate ideas these become entrenched in our vision and the desire to see our ideas succeed can become a poisonous energy for a team. Group creativity implies a certain level of sharing, spontaneity and even vulnerability – it is very effective at reducing friction, producing intellectual intimacy and trust.

A collaborative creativity session is comprised of multiple creative exercises that examine a problem from different angles, designed to maximise individual participation and group collaboration. In a short amount of time live creative collaboration can achieve many goals. A single session can help a team explore relevant themes of empathy and self-discovery, then leverage them to inspire invention and subsequently generate individual realisation and group cohesion. I know this because for many years I have helped hundreds of groups of people explore and solve problems with creative exercises and I predict that as remote working becomes a consolidated practice the need to use group creativity will increase.

The last six months of remote working are not an indicator of the future, they have benefitted from a pre-existing rapport between colleagues forged by months and years of interactions in the physical office. In the future, workforce turnover and the effects of extended isolation will negate this. Working remotely with people you know and trust is very different to remote collaboration with strangers. There is, of course, a social element to work and if, as seems likely, we don’t all return to the office regularly, the intimacy of proximity and the coffee-machine-effect will disappear. So, we must reimagine how teams unite, interact and bond. The challenge is to achieve in a few days each month what used to take multiple consecutive days. Working together on creative exercises is good for social bonding. By allowing teams to reimagine aspects of their work collectively we can use the power of self-determination to form resilient bonds based on mutual understanding.

Then there is the ultimate justification for coming together – purpose. Collaboration and team building are optimal when the employee experience is rewarding and contributes to a shared vision. In many corporations, the status quo is a proxy for vision and these are not good times for status quo lovers – in 2020 and beyond, every business is obliged to innovate and change. Well-established companies tend to struggle with change, traditionally their strength lies in executional excellence and business optimisation. We know that innovation and change are difficult to mandate and that even the best plans will find resistance from those who dislike and fear change. Empowering nimble teams to implement their own solutions to reach objectives and fulfil a vision gives them a sense of responsibility, agency and purpose – a broad outline should be mandated but the details should be delegated to an operational group. Even the, now common, problem of finding the best mix of live and remote interaction can be explored and self-determined by teams – each finding their optimum equilibrium.

Meetings were broken before the pandemic arrived. They took up huge chunks of people’s time and often gave little in return. The permanent transition from continuous low-quality live collaboration to remote working supplemented by high-quality live meetings is a fundamental shift for an organisation. I predict that the ability to develop new meeting habits that scale from top management on down into the organisation will soon be a defining trait of healthy and resilient company cultures.

Peter John Comber – expert in applied creativity and author of ‘The Forces of Collaborative Creativity’.

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