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How Working From Home Can Amp Up Your Team's Communication and Creativity

The great work from home experiment has begun. This shift brings small and large frustrations: my friend spent an hour trying to log in to his company’s email server, parents now have a second job keeping their kids entertained, and relationships may be in danger as partners spend much more time together. As you might be experiencing right now, there are downsides to remote work.

But there’s a silver lining. There are some new skills we can learn from this forced remote work situation. Our limitations, like communicating virtually and feeling distant, might even push us to communicate better and come up with better quality creative ideas. Let’s explore how.

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1. Get clearer with your communication: Others don’t know what you know

When working with others, we succumb to the curse of knowledge[1]. We assume that others know what we know. We think they’re aware of how hard we’re working, what roadblocks we’re facing, and what we need from them. The distance between us forces us to get better at explaining our situation; we can’t hope that people will “see” what’s going on without an explanation. Fortunately, this can force us to communicate more clearly.

The empathy toy is a team-building product that requires teammates to explain steps to a blindfolded team member. These sessions teach communication techniques in an uncommon environment: your team member can’t see what needs to be done. You need to guide their actions, or they’re left in the dark. A work from home situation seems completely different from this at first glance, as (most likely) your co-worker isn’t blindfolded. But there are some commonalities: coworkers and bosses can’t see what’s happening on your end of the screen, and vice versa. They don’t know if, for example, you’re struggling to keep concentrated in your flat, and you don’t know if they’re frustrated trying to maintain their normal pace of work from an old desktop — thus, more than ever, when working from home we need to communicate even more clearly to close this gap.

As working from home improves our communication, this in turn can also help your team’s coordination[2]. By sharing how your daily and weekly tasks relate to the team’s end goal, team members will see what you’re doing and why it’s important. This keeps the team focused on its objectives. If your team members agree with statements like these, you’re doing a good job with virtual coordination:

“I exchange useful information with my group members to solve the problem together.”

“I try to bring all our concerns out in the open so that the issues could be addressed in the best possible way.”

2. Lower the psychological distance between you and your team

Even though we need to be physically distant these days, we don’t need to feel isolated from our teams. Psychological distance happens when we feel far away from others, regardless of where we are in the world. To prevent your physical distance from turning into psychological distance, consider using these tips to improve trust, coordination, and cohesion on your virtual team.

Researchers analyzed over 7,700 teams to see whether having more trust helped them achieve their goals[3]. Trust had a positive relationship with team goal achievement, likely because it helps members stay focused on the collective. One way to increase team trust is to share personal experiences and show vulnerability; when we share something personal about ourselves, we open the lines of communication for others to reciprocate. These connections the researchers observed were strong, no matter if teams were virtual or working face to face.

However, virtual teams can avoid the dangers of low team trust with more documentation[4]. By keeping clear records of their meetings, chats, and workflows, teams can avoid miscommunications that can hurt their performance. This documentation is especially good for clarifying roles and responsibilities. Confusion around who should have done what can hurt team member relationships.

3. Brainstorm separately for more, better quality ideas

Staring at the same wall in your home might be killing your creativity — but you’d be surprised at how effective brainstorming separately can be. If you and your team need to generate creative ideas, virtual “brainwriting sessions” can lead to more and better ideas than brainstorming together out loud. Across over 1,100 teams, researchers found that small groups that wrote down their thoughts individually and anonymously before sharing them as a group ended up with better ideas[5]. Those ideas were rated by experts as more creative and higher quality than teams that simply followed the all-too-typical process of blurting solutions out loud to each other with one dedicated person writing them down. This means our standard brainstorming approach doesn’t make the best use of each team member’s unique perspective. If you’re working with a group of more than ten people, consider electronic brainstorming instead[6]. With this hybrid approach, team members submit their ideas over text and the whole group can discuss concepts as they appear on the screen.

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Even if creating ideas is an individual sport, building on them is where teams can shine. Use sentences that start with “yes, and…” to expand others’ thinking and make it even better[7]. This technique, originally from improvisational comedy, has infiltrated the world of work with great promise. It forces your team to narrow their ideas. Here, it’s ideal to have team members with different levels of openness[8]. People who are open to experience can be more helpful when generating ideas, and people who are less open can help narrow down the list of ideas into those with a chance of working in practice.

Despite positive results in work from home experiments, including a 22% performance increase[9], companies are still apprehensive about this change. Even though it’s business as usual to work from your office, the modern workplace isn’t ideal for focusing without distractions. So let’s test it out – try implementing the tips above and track how your team’s creativity, coordination, and trust changes.

References

[1] Birch, S. A. (2005). When knowledge is a curse: Children’s and adults’ reasoning about mental states. Current Directions in Psychological Science14(1), 25-29.

[2] Lin, C., Standing, C., & Liu, Y. C. (2008). A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems45(4), 1031-1045.

[3] De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology101(8), 1134-1150.

[4] Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology101(8), 1151-1177.

[5] DeRosa, D. M., Smith, C. L., & Hantula, D. A. (2007). The medium matters: Mining the long-promised merit of group interaction in creative idea generation tasks in a meta-analysis of the electronic group brainstorming literature. Computers in Human Behavior23(3), 1549-1581.

[6] Dennis, A. R., & Williams, M. L. (2005). A meta-analysis of group side effects in electronic brainstorming: More heads are better than one. International Journal of e-Collaboration (IJeC)1(1), 24-42.

[7] Moshavi, D. (2001). “Yes and…”: introducing improvisational theatre techniques to the management classroom. Journal of Management Education25(4), 437-449.

[8] Schilpzand, M. C., Herold, D. M., & Shalley, C. E. (2011). Members’ openness to experience and teams’ creative performance. Small Group Research42(1), 55-76.

[9] Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. J. (2015). Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics130(1), 165-218.

About the Author

Natasha Ouslis

Natasha Ouslis

Natasha is a behavior change consultant, writer, and researcher. She started her own workplace behavioral science consulting firm after working as a consultant at fast-growing behavioral economics companies including BEworks. Natasha is also finishing her PhD in organizational psychology at Western University, specializing in team conflict and collaboration, where she completed her Master of Science in the same field. She has a monthly column on workplace behavioral design in the Habit Weekly newsletter and is a Director and science translator at the nonprofit ScienceForWork.

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