Creativity in hybrid workplaces requires trust. Trust is important for supporting team members to contribute ideas. But even with trusting teams used to brainstorming together, working remotely at least initially killed the creative spark for many. Teams still functioned and generated ideas, but somehow, no big lightbulbs popped up, there were no eurekas or ‘Aha!’ moments. The edginess of working in the same space with a group of people seemed to be missing amongst the laptop and laundry basket lifestyle of a hybrid working life. 

Writer and keynote speaker Alison Lester shared some insights on creativity and some ideas on how marketing teams might ensure they can work together when not in the same physical space still to come up with great creative ideas. Some of the problems that arose are opportunities for digital tools developers to design tools that fit the challenges.  

Making time for play

Creativity is intelligence having fun, Einstein is quoted as saying. The criteria for fun or play are to have lots of time with no agenda or intention and just let things unfold. Teams indulge in this free play time to generate creative ideas for innovating new content or projects. It is not a new idea to set aside a time for creating only: the great artists had their incubation period and Disney famously set up his dreaming, constructing and evaluating phases to keep criticism and a more focused mind out of the way until the dreaming part had been achieved. 

The relationship between creativity and innovation is an important one. The creativity session, the dreaming portion is the start, while the constructing and evaluation focus more on realising a project and come under innovation. In Creativity with a Big C, psychologist Cziksentmilhayli says that an idea cannot be seen as creative if people don’t recognise it as such and this is where innovation comes in: getting others to recognise the genius within the project. 

Seeking connection and spontaneity

Such processes definitely went awry and people were thrown off balance when remote and hybrid workplaces suddenly became the norm. The questions around how to keep everyone creative when not together quickly arose. What was missing? What did teams need to do to get back to those halcyon days of messing about, catching someone’s eye, laughing and ad-libbing in a room together? Could a marketing team put a creative project together when separated by space and even time? 

And what did we need to change given the hybrid limitations to make time and space for creativity processes? Alison admits that there are probably as many strategies for generating creativity as there are creative people, though certain features of how to prevent creativity are generally agreed upon: don’t meet, stay on the agenda, cram up time with back-to-back meetings, stay focused, schedule, schedule. 

This suggests that anything purposeful and structured is likely to kill the creativity impetus. Paradoxically, Alison feels that to play, we need to be intentional about making time for it or otherwise, it may not happen. Anything that we might consider optional tended to be squeezed out when we went remote and we ended up with a kind of work concentrate that got emails done, meetings attended and reports written but lacked spontaneity and the sparkle of human connection. 

Preparing to enter a creative flow state

So, before Disney’s dreaming phase, there may need to be two mind-setting, pre-dreaming phases: first, of preparation, perhaps even incubation to gather the materials and focus the mind on the question or project. Second, to prepare oneself physiologically, mentally and emotionally to let go and jump out of boxes into the world of play. 

To ensure that our creative dreaming leads us towards innovation, we can start in the preparation phase with a fantastic framing question that focuses us in on the creative process. Like dropping a stone into a pool, we see the question set off ripples in the mind. Without that question, some people are unable to see the problem at hand in a different way. Great questions are indeed great keys to creativity. 

For the second pre-dreaming phase, perhaps moving away from screens is still the favoured way to set the mind exploring. Standing, walking to a different place and even mundane physical actions such as washing dishes or having a shower seem to do the trick. Importantly, good brain health begins with breathing and some breath work gets the mind and body into a more relaxed state. In front of our screens, we often forget to do this and might even experience something like email apnoea, so engrossed are we. 

Alison is certain that a key part of getting teams together is a feeling of safety and trust to just let go. Snugly ensconced at home, it might be harder to winkle people out to share and take part in team creative sessions. 

Finding intuitive creativity tools to fit the process

These discoveries on what has changed are great opportunities for the designers of digital tools to help teams with the creative process. If these tools are to be used continuously, they have to ape some of the fun we got from face-to-face larking about, enjoying the randomness and surprises in a creativity room. The plethora of tools that became available during the past two years saw a lot of initial novelty excitement, but teams dropped anything that was clearly mechanical, clunky or tedious and tended to resort to simpler tools that helped with the brainstorming process. 

Tools that are likely to succeed best need to align their choices for input, such as verbal or visual, with easy collage options to add in images and video or audio clips. Team access to such a storyboard might allow member to go in and add over time, too, since not everyone is a morning lark and creative moments often occur unscheduled, such as when we are washing our hair. 

Content-generating tools that are too prescriptive might not always gel with the team’s initial creative process, which is focused on discovering the spark from within, but can be useful in the preparation or constructing phases. 

Finally, there is the satisfaction of realising a creative project, whether accomplished by an individual or team. If an AI tool has done much of the creative work, should this debt be acknowledged? When does the tool become the toolmaster? Marketing teams still want to hold that acclaim, should not blame their tools, but embrace them as ways to amaze their audiences with sizzling new ideas.