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Using Creativity to Engage Virtual Teams

One of my favorite experiences as a creative leader involved teaching psychologists and mental health experts how to engage resistant clients using artistic self-expression techniques. As people settled into their seats in the classroom or conference room, I’d always notice someone with that “Go ahead and try to teach me something I don’t already know” look; you know – arms crossed, smug smile, chair leaning back. There’d also be a few, “I’m not artistic at all, so good luck with that!” By the end of the workshop, both would be talking excitedly about what they just experienced and how they couldn’t wait to bring the methods to their clients. It was a deeply satisfying experience to see the light go on in their eyes.

After I left that position, I missed seeing those aha-moments strike; I also missed teaching creative skills and techniques. Fast forward several years, and I’m now Creative Director at Electric Pen with a team that was open to some out-of-the-box inspiration.

I brought an idea to the design team, suggesting we’d meet once a month and show off client work–what we were proud of and what we were struggling with–but then decided to let them shape what our time would look like in order to get deeper buy-in. To my delight and surprise, they wanted to share the creative projects they were doing outside of work.

Soon we were teaching each other our pet creative endeavors – Maya showed us how to quilt. Monica had us doodling. Peyton guided us in pattern-making. Steve demonstrated how to make a hat out of cardboard. I taught Dadaist poetry.

As time went on and COVID sent us to our respective corners, the rest of the team asked to participate. With everyone working remotely from home, it became more challenging, but also more important. Each of these creative sessions gave us a much-needed energy boost and helped reduce work stress. It’s now a regular way for us to bond, laugh, and appreciate one another. Through an hour a month, we improve team morale and get to explore personal expression beyond pixel pushing.

I thought I’d share a few guidelines as well as a handful of activities that work virtually and don’t require a lot of art supplies.

GUIDELINES TO SUCCESS

  • Start with a team that already has a certain level of trust or connection. It’s a much harder sell if your team doesn’t feel safe with one another or has too much hierarchy.
  • Let the group decide what’s important to them–start with shared values. My team had energy around their creative pursuits outside the office, so that became our focus.
  • Make it optional–no one wants to feel like it’s mandated or forced. If you do it right, people will ask to join.
  • If your team is a mix of right- and left-brained people, make your project relatively easy with basic supplies (pens, markers, paper). This way, everyone can participate without feeling intimidated.
  • Set ground rules for safety–make it a no- or low-risk, stress-free, no-pressure, fun time. Leave judgment behind and find ways to encourage and lift each other up (it’s not a competition, it’s about creative exploration).
  • Begin with a simple warm-up to make everyone feel safe, then go over the instructions, clearly marking how much time people have for each step.
  • Focus on creative activities where the end product will be just as unique as the people participating, rather than focusing on a “craft” where the result looks the same as everyone else’s.
  • Since being asked to be creative in a group can sometimes feel challenging, I suggest everyone turn their cameras off and hit mute during the writing or drawing time, letting everyone know when it’s time to come back.
  • Sharing is optional. People can share what the process was like or what they wrote or drew…whatever they are comfortable with.

VIRTUAL PLAY IDEAS

  • Create blind contour drawings of each other (not lifting the pencil, not looking at your paper). Using the lines as guides, color in with a limited palette of 3–4 colors.
  • Listen to an unrecognizable language slow-cast (I recommend Russian), stopping at the end of every sentence. Have everyone “interpret” what they heard to create unique poems.
  • Make shadow doodles: find a good light source and set small objects on a piece of paper. Outline the shadows and create a new image from them.
  • Draw a cool or unusual character (real or imagined) in a comic art style that seems “doable”. For example, someone could draw Billie Eilish as a PowerPuff Girl or Jason Momoa as a Pokemon.
  • My favorite activity is Black Out Poetry. Some excellent examples can be found here, and a great video by Austin Kleon can be found here.

Activities like this help keep us connected during the stressors of the pandemic. Through creativity, we get to spend meaningful time with each other–regrouping, relaxing, and re-energizing. After all, the longer we keep burn-out at bay, the longer our team stays healthy and together.

 

By Steffanie Lorig, Creative Director

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