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5 ways to build a culture of creativity when your workforce goes remote

With the right support, a dispersed workforce can be creative.

5 ways to build a culture of creativity when your workforce goes remote
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Collaboration is a key ingredient of innovation in any workplace. While working remotely can cause hiccups in the normal process among teams, companies can still stay nimble and creative. At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by PepsiCo featured senior executives from leading companies offering advice on building a culture of creativity when your workforce goes virtual. Here are five key takeaways from that event. (Some quotes have been edited for clarity.)

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1. Think transformation, not iteration

As the pandemic spread across the globe, many companies adjusted their plans, but it became clear very quickly that tweaking wasn’t going to be enough. Companies needed to reimagine their business and build and adopt new capabilities—quickly—all while their teams worked remotely. Companies now need to understand the changes that entire industries are facing and how they can provide consumers with the solutions they are seeking. “The challenge is to remain nimble,” said Ram Krishnan, global chief commercial officer at PepsiCo. “It’s hard to predict the post-pandemic world, but remote work works. Our objective is to preserve and continue to enable speed and agility in a post-COVID world.”

Krishnan pointed out that throughout the pandemic PepsiCo has continued to drive innovation through the adoption of new technology, such as smart glasses, enabling remote teams to collaborate with their manufacturing plants. The company also built a proprietary database to provide granular consumer- and store marketing and execution insights to its retail partners. It launched two new direct-to-consumer websites in less than 30 days and fast-tracked the launch of new products to meet changing consumer needs.

2. Make opportunities for social interaction

In a remote work environment, employees miss out on the informal points of connection that occur at lunch, in the elevator, or at the proverbial water cooler. In a typical office environment, these moments—which are key to workplace cohesion and collaboration—can happen spontaneously. But in a remote environment, they have to be intentionally crafted. “We created a lot more interactions, whether within a specific team or across teams, to maintain that social connection and constant communication,” said Yael Cosset, senior vice president and chief information officer at Kroger.

The grocery brand quickly learned that it was equally important to foster connection outside the context of specific projects. It now hosts designated social hours, with themes such as wine pairing or cheese tasting; leaders also blocked off designated lunch hours for employees to socialize informally. Cosset said that while digital schmoozing can seem unnatural at first, it quickly becomes a habit. Kroger plans to maintain these events even when its workforce is no longer operating at a distance.

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3. Create space for ideation

Leaders have learned that silos are the enemy of creative thinking, and that game-changing innovation often occurs when disparate members on the company org chart join forces to solve problems. But with employees working remotely, collaborative creative thinking becomes more challenging. Mastercard has found success by translating its brainstorming processes into the virtual workspace. The company’s labs team, which is focused on innovation, typically runs four- or five-day, in-person “innovation sprints.” In the post-COVID world, that timeline has been compressed. “We’ve accelerated those into shorter sprints, and we do them virtually, through collaboration and video tools,” said Cheryl Guerin, executive vice president for marketing and communications at Mastercard North America.

The results have been encouraging: One brainstorming event, which focused on aiding small businesses during the pandemic, inspired the creation of Shopopenings.com, a site that lets users know what businesses are open in their communities, and which ones offer contactless payment options.

4. Embrace technology’s upsides

Many people are under the impression that digital-based communication is cold and distancing. But Kelly Cheeseman, chief operating officer at AEG Sports and the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, found that’s not always the case. Cheeseman works with professional hockey players, whose busy schedules mean that they might have only four free days a month. With such limitations, it was difficult to schedule events for media and fans.

By embracing remote-collaboration technologies, however, the Kings have established new opportunities for connection. They have hosted Zoom chats between players and season-ticket holders, as well as an event where players from the 2012 Stanley Cup championship team watched a pivotal game and reminisced over video chat. “It creates a new level of accessibility for players and humanizes them,” Cheeseman said. “And that’s critical for us long term.”

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5. Consult with and listen to your employees

The rapid shift to remote work led to the swift adoption of new programs and processes, leading to the so-called “new normal.” Systemic changes that ordinarily would have taken place over months or years instead happened over the course of days or weeks. To make sure these new systems are operating optimally, it’s crucial to solicit input and advice from the people actually using the technology. Since they’re the ones with firsthand experience, they’re best positioned to identify pain points and make suggestions for improvement. “Change cannot be driven from the top down,” Krishnan said. “It has to come from the ground up.”

With that dynamic in mind, PepsiCo has instituted regular check-ins with employees, asking if the remote-work technology is meeting their needs, whether it helps with their work-life balance, and what can be done better. “I think what is unique about this moment is, we are all in this together,” Krishnan said. “We are much more patient and forgiving, and people have taken this opportunity to learn and grow.”

Click here to watch this panel from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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