More and more companies are now moving towards hybrid workplaces. Under this model, some people work remotely and some in the office, some or all of the time. It is a highly flexible model: people may work remotely most or all of the time, or simply have the option of remote working occasionally. It is also preferred by many workers—but organisations are finding that there are many challenges.

One of those that is often cited is how to encourage creativity in a hybrid environment. 

Creativity and serendipity

This is often seen as a problem because people talk about the importance of serendipitous meetings for encouraging sparks of creativity. However, how many of us can seriously say that a random meeting at a water cooler ever really resulted in a creative spark? It might happen very occasionally, but it’s a bit like saying that all scientific discovery must be serendipitous because that’s how penicillin was discovered. 

Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that most companies are not all that creative anyway. We tend not to value the behaviours that lead to innovation, like spending a lot of time thinking, or testing things out and making mistakes. This leads people to ‘play it safe’, and focus on getting ordinary stuff done—and that, in turn, is a barrier to innovation and creativity.

The water cooler idea is, however, pervasive. It may therefore be worth considering how those casual meetings might contribute to creativity. If we’re not sparking ideas off each other, what are we doing? The answer is building relationships. Every time we meet someone and chat to them, we discover more about them. We learn more about what makes them tick, and what we have in common. This helps us to build trust.

Trust and creativity

Why is trust so crucial in creativity? When you share ideas, you open yourself up to criticism. If you are concerned that your ideas may be rejected, you are unlikely to share them. However, trust isn’t just important for creativity. It also matters for collaboration and cooperation. It is therefore an important starting point in any hybrid workplace.

The next question is how you can build both trust and creativity. Some ideas that may help include:

  • Using video routinely for meetings. 

Some companies have adopted the rule that if one person is attending a meeting by video, then everyone does so.1 This is much more democratic than having one person on video and everyone else in person, and avoids remote workers from feeling like outsiders. However, there is another benefit: it is much easier to ensure that everyone gets equal airtime on video. The chair can mute anyone who is taking over the meeting, and ensure that those who say less have a chance to contribute. Other tools like virtual whiteboards may also be more democratic, because everyone has a chance to contribute instead of only the person with the pen. They may also allow people to share initial ideas without being ‘tainted’ by what someone else has said.

  • Using a structured process for brainstorming and sharing ideas

Obvious examples of methods include de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or the Disney method. This is a cycle of thinking in four ways in turn. These are as an Outsider (to gain an analytical view of the problem), Dreamer (to generate ideas, however crazy), Realiser (to examine the ideas from a practical perspective and build a plan to deliver them) and Critic (to critique the plan). These offer helpful ways to share ideas without fear of rejection.

  • Brainstorm via documents instead of in person

It may be revolutionary, but you don’t actually need to brainstorm or comment on something in person, or simultaneously, to spark ideas. Technology allows us to share a document centrally, and enable everyone to review it in their own time, adding comments and ideas. Each person will review both the document, and the comments from all those who have already looked. They can also go back and look again at other comments. This has been the approach used for years in many government departments to discuss and debate policy issues. 

  • Build a more diverse workplace

Hybrid working gives organisations a huge advantage: they can recruit the best person for each job regardless of location. This means that they have a chance to build a much more diverse workplace—and diversity is enormously helpful in increasing creativity and the range of ideas available.