All progressive, forward-thinking companies have adopted virtual or flexible working in some shape or form. However, in a world where company survival depends on constant innovation and re-invention, leaders have questioned whether virtual working fosters the creative thinking needed for better innovation and business outcomes.

How Can We Collaborate and Innovate When So Many Colleagues are Working Virtually?

We know that the best innovation outcomes occur in groups where people can challenge, tease out and build on each other’s thinking. The collective energy of a group of humans also produces inspiration and excitement that doesn’t happen when we work solo.

Before we step into a group or collaborative situation, it’s better if we’ve done lots of reflection and exploratory thinking beforehand. By doing so we’ve taken our research and ideas as far as we can by ourselves. We’re knowledgeable, primed and in a much better position to discuss the issues at hand than if we went in cold.

Virtual working fosters creativity in the following ways:

  • It provides reflective thinking space - Virtual working enables a greater focus and less interruptions.
  • You can get into a state of “flow” more easily - “Flow” being the state where people are at their most productive when they are completely absorbed by an activity. Arguably this is from where our best work stems. It ignites our intrinsic motivation and we’re inclined to exert more discretionary effort.
  • Bed, Bath, Bus Creativity - Eureka moments often happen when we’re in a different place or situation. Our sub-conscious mind, the powerhouse of our creativity, takes these opportunities to whisper ideas to us. Bed, Bath, Bus is a metaphor for this. Often it’s during sleep or a day dream (Bed), in a relaxed physical state like in the bath, during a massage or exercise (Bath) or when we’re in a different location (Bus). Virtual working can unlock this creativity when we choose surroundings that inspire a state of flow.

Personal note: Lately, when I’ve been pondering a problem or creative challenge, new ideas have been popping into my head during meditation. Meditation seems to quieten the monkey mind (conscious mind) and allow the creative mind (sub-conscious) to have its voice.

How to Minimize Creativity Blockers

1. Avoid Institutionalized Thinking

Did you ever see the movie Shawshank Redemption?

Red (played by Morgan Freeman) had been in prison for 50 years and was fearful of getting out. He said:

“These walls are funny. At first you hate ‘em. Then as time passes you start to depend on ‘em. That’s institutionalized.”

In my view, it takes around two years to become institutionalized, give or take. When we first start a new job, we see all the things that can be done to improve the place. We have lots of ideas, drawing on our past experiences, and how they would sit in the new context. However, after a little while, we become more accepting of the way things are. After that, thinking becomes entrenched and it’s easy to fall in line with the status quo.

It’s so easy, and human nature for most people, to fall in step. Being mindful of this to make sure we approach problems without looking for the hand-rails or without scrambling for frameworks and precedents will help alleviate this.

2. Create the Right Environment

Our environment plays a bigger role than we give it credit for in influencing our mood, energy and productivity. Virtual working allows you to choose your own environment. Experiment with different environments to figure out what works best for you:

  • Light – natural light, not too bright or too dim, aspect, view, colour
  • Space – high or low ceilings, small rooms, natural floorings such as wood or woollen carpets, secluded corner vs people bustling by
  • Sound – quiet or noisy, tranquil or tense, ambient music or the surf gently playing in the background
  • Smells – the aroma or coffee or freshly baked bread vs burnt toast, cigarette smoke or pollution
  • Touch/kinaesthetic – the vibe of the room, the emotional energy of people nearby, your ergonomic comfort at the desk/table, the feel of the furnishings

3. Avoid Stress

If you’re stressed and cortisol is flooding your frontal lobes, it may not be the best time to spawn creativity. Yet, many people thrive under pressure so this one depends on the individual.

ChapmanCG is a virtual business. I’ve had my best creative ideas and eureka moments when I’m in different spaces away from my usual office. I remember one time sharing a very left-field idea with colleagues. Stefanie Cross-Wilson, my colleague in the USA, said “if that works, you’re a genius”.

It worked.

1. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper Modern Classics, 2008