Chicago Booth Magazine How Can You Stay Creative While Working Remotely?
An alumna, a professor, and a student shared how they’ve been able to think outside the box in a work-from-home world.
- By January 29, 2021
Katie Perri, ’16, is a principal product marketing manager at Adobe.
Prior to the pandemic, Adobe’s office culture was very much focused around being in the office. The company expected us to commute from the San Francisco office to San José headquarters at least once if not twice a week, with the idea that the best collaboration happens in person. So the shift to working from home was significant.
It was difficult at first. Even though Adobe did a lot of video calls in the office, people were much more uncomfortable with video calls in their homes. But with time, people began to open up. They realized you could have much deeper conversations, because there was never that fear that someone is going to overhear you in the office. I started scheduling video calls to catch up with people. I also learned quickly that I could selectively invite the people who could help us focus to get work done, which allowed us to have fewer distractions.
At Adobe we were in the middle of a hiring freeze, so we had to make this transition to working from home with fewer resources. I was able to build my relationship with my boss, who was still new to Adobe, and together we figured out how to optimize resources. Again, the one-on-one virtual discussions helped us to focus: I think had we been in the office, he would have had so many different people in his ear that it might have been harder to make decisions.
Having the constraints of not being able to travel and having a freeze on head count made us think differently about how to produce content. We used to do these expensive team trips—about two years ago, I was in Brazil with a crew of 40, shooting advertising for Adobe; we could never do that today. I had to pivot. This year, for our student business, we contracted with student creators and had them shoot themselves on their cell phones and send that footage back to us.
We also did more animation, which used to be considered very expensive, but suddenly didn’t seem so expensive in the age of COVID-19. We doubled down on using the local artists based in California or the West Coast, where we could send skeleton crews to film what we needed. We ended up relying on more postproduction work, which was a good thing, because our tools are used in postproduction. So it forced us to use our own technology that much more.
Normally, we would start our annual planning process every April, and it might run until the following January. This year we didn’t start it until after July 4. But it was so healthy for us as a company to realize that we didn’t have time for a drawn-out process. We were able to realize that things can be done differently.
“It was so healthy for us as a company to realize that we didn’t have time for a drawn-out process.”
Mary Ittelson is an adjunct assistant professor of strategy. In her new class at Booth about arts leadership, she encourages future leaders to try radical strategies.
In class we discuss the challenges of leading amidst VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. But we also talk about the opportunities, the silver linings. Today there are so many grave problems, and so many things we can’t do. I have found unexpected inspiration by focusing on what we can do.
I’ve been teaching arts leadership for five years now, originally at Stanford Business School. Initially, I didn’t want to teach this past fall. Art is best experienced live, and my class is designed in that spirit. But I changed my mind after talking with my colleague at Booth, George Wu [the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science], who had volunteered to help faculty members who had never taught online. He encouraged us to make the best possible version of our classes despite the difficult circumstances.
Taking George’s advice to heart, I turned the class into a laboratory for grappling real-time with the thorniest problems facing arts organizations today—from the financial devastation of closures to the calls for racial and social justice reckonings. Alongside arts executives, we addressed difficult questions, including how to bring arts resources to our most vulnerable communities. The urgency of the crises challenged all of us to put our best selves forward, and I was blown away by the Booth students’ ingenious problem-solving. Going way beyond the application of best practices of the past, students crafted novel strategies to help museums, theaters, and dance companies thrive postpandemic.
For the first time, and thanks to the remote format, I was able to have several artists speak with the class. Their resilience was especially inspiring. Even in the direst of times, artists have found the means to create and connect. Driven by both passion and purpose, the artists provided leadership lessons that fueled some of the most interesting discussions of the quarter.
On a personal level, engaging in artistic expression can be valuable for everyone. Most of us are taught to believe, “Oh, I can’t paint. I can’t sing. I can’t dance.” I think that’s a terrible mistake. I find stepping away from work and spending time creating art is a profoundly hopeful and generative act.
I’ve turned to writing fiction in the past five years. I’m not as good a writer as I was a professional dancer, or as I am an arts manager or teacher. But writing opens my mind and my heart. I’m a goal-oriented strategic planner by nature and nurture. Creative expression takes me on more serendipitous paths, which can be tremendously productive. I urge my students to carve out time to not just experience art, but to make it. I urge everyone to.
In class I quote the legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille, who once said, “The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” For me this quote speaks beyond artistry to the essence of living and leading in difficult times. Today the road may not be clear before us, but with strength, courage, and creativity, we can move forward.
Design thinking puts people at the center of solving problems and looks to create solutions that are desirable, viable, and feasible. This Spring Quarter, as I became a co-chair of the Innovation and Design Club, centering around people’s needs became critical when we had to suddenly pivot to remote-only classes.
A key challenge to creativity during remote work is mental fatigue, which I quickly discovered while facilitating a remote design-thinking workshop for Lighten. Lighten is a digital one-stop shop for making arrangements after the death of a loved one, and I joined them in the spring to use human-centered design to build the platform prototype. At this point I was also helping to create a workshop to teach Booth students basic design-thinking skills, “Design Thinking 101,” with the Innovation and Design Club. My co-chairs and I realized that the traditional three-hour sessions wouldn’t work. We decided to break things out into two lunch sessions instead, and prioritized the points that students would find valuable as they headed into virtual summer internships and full-time jobs.
To make the workshop relevant to current events, we had students work on one challenge statement: How might we collaborate better and improve productivity in our new remote jobs or internships? We promoted the workshop as a way for all students to learn how to innovate virtually, thus increasing reach and student diversity beyond just our club members.
The workshop was capped at 40 students, and utilized small-group breakout rooms, since design thinking works best in small, collaborative teams. Interactive activities that foster engagement can help spark creativity, and we also ran a small competitive exercise to see which team could come up with the most ideas.
We used MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration that I had experience with while working at Accenture, and a tool that was instrumental in helping me switch to a completely virtual world. Participants used a digital whiteboard and sticky notes where they could jot down ideas and move notes around. Once ideas were up, the groups could critique them one at a time. These round-robin critiques translated well in the online setting, because they gave the students the experience of building on each other’s ideas without being cut off or talked over, which is all too common in typical Zoom meetings. MURAL allowed us to create matrices that everyone could see and use to narrow down a final pick.
Even though the content had to be streamlined because of the physical and mental constraints of being online, the workshop still covered basic aspects of the design-thinking process: reframing the problem statement, ideating unique and creative solutions, refining solutions through collaboration, and developing a pitch for the final solution/share-out.
The teams came up with four ideas for working together. One final solution a team developed was to create a virtual water cooler where coworkers could socialize online, to help combat the loneliness of working remotely.
I took what I learned about facilitating fully virtual design-thinking methods and applied it to building the wireframe prototype solution for Lighten in the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge finals, where we won second place, receiving $280,000 in funding. The pandemic forced us to think differently about how to accomplish the same goals and explore different avenues to reach those goals, including using new tools and creative ways of problem-solving.
“Interactive activities that foster engagement can help spark creativity.”