Creative Collaboration In A Remote World: 3 Tips To Go Async

March 18, 2022

The work from home revolution has eliminated the need for exhausting commutes, uninspiring offices, and of course, having to shower or get dressed. But what does creative collaboration look like when working remotely?

Many agencies are finding an asynchronous workflow more efficient to get their projects done. And creatives have never been happier. A study by The Atlantic shows 32% of workers would prefer to work from home 5 days a week.

But our remote world is not without its challenges. The new normal calls for new mindsets, new strategies and new tools.

In this article, you’ll learn tactics for remote collaboration to help get your best creative work done without wishing you were back in the office.

What is Creative Collaboration Anyway?

Creative collaboration is the process of working with a group to create something innovative together — a novel idea that solves a problem or achieves a goal. A loose definition of creativity involves making something you’ve never seen before, or looking at the problem in a new way to develop a unique solution. This “group” with whom you collaborate may include your in-house team, your client, or your peers.

Bring this idea of creative collaboration through an asynchronous, remote lens, and you can already see the bumps that may arise. How can we truly work together on an idea, if we’re not in the same room at the same time?

However, async communication can be a boon to your creative collaboration. Let this constraint spark more creative thinking, and use the following methodologies to make the process welcoming and inclusive.

Build a Safe Creative Container

Each remote team needs a process that minimizes the barriers to creation. I’ve led creative teams at a variety of companies, both in person and remotely, and here’s a practice that’s useful.

If one of your team members expresses a new idea or project they’re excited about, take it “offline.” Follow that energy by giving their idea its own private, dedicated space.

Slack is great for customizing your remote collaboration. Set up your public channels with clear intent, and establish a purpose for each channel — only inviting the stakeholders who need to be involved. If more candid feedback is needed, switch to DMs or a private channel.

And set a policy for response time; answering within 24 hours is a reasonable ask. Don’t set the expectation that people need to respond in seconds.

Digital whiteboard tools like MURAL and Miro also work great for collaborating remotely. No longer does a team need to be in the same room, to hash out an idea with markers and sticky notes. You’d be surprised how open to contributing people are from behind their computer screens.

Even for more introverted folks who may be quieter in meetings, this is a big opportunity to make sure the right voices are heard.

And of course, Punchlist works wonders for creative collaboration on visual projects, giving people the asynchronous space to let creativity breathe, point to exactly what they’re referring to, and share their comments in one place.

Whichever tool you employ, think of it as your team’s safe container and creative repository. Now people can use this platform to dump notes, ideas, opinions, resources and whatever else comes to mind.

Each person can asynchronously engage with this creative container on their own time. No matter how many time zones, schedules or stakeholders you’re dealing with, everybody is participating.

The best part about this collaboration methodology is, you’re protected from uninvited, cynical voices chiming in at the wrong time. That’s a key to remote collaboration — not working with every single person all of the time. Doing so stalemates your creative output.

Building a creative container reinforces what Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety. Her definition of the term is a shared belief held by members of a team, that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, and a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. If you want your remote team to be inspired to keep innovating, minimize the barriers to creation. Keep the container safe, and you’ll keep the ideas flowing.

Calibrate Feedback Against Potential Confusion

One of my former startup coworkers is smart, experienced, well-connected, and she excelled at her job as a salesperson. Customers absolutely loved her.

But internally, she was a royal pain. Particularly when she gave us input on team projects. It became a burden to work with her because all of her creative feedback felt like she was creating extra homework just for the sake of it.

She’d come barging in late in the game with a litany of unexpected edits on collateral, website design, marketing content, and so on. And if we were to implement even some of them, it would have resulted in a major monkey wrench in the project timeline. It would literally cost us three days of additional work that wasn’t scoped.

The founder of our company even took her aside one afternoon and told her:

“Andrea, we want everyone on the team to be heard and feel safe to share their opinions. But in the creative process, timing is everything. When there’s one person who always shakes things up late in the game, it not only slows down the work, but makes the rest of us hesitant to involve that person at all.”

It’s the classic case of too much, too late. And it causes an abundance of stress, expensive time and excess labor. When feedback comes in after a project is more than fifty percent done, even a minor request for a change can set the team back a whole week. With already packed schedules, people don’t need that kind of additional stress (and companies can’t afford that kind of scope creep).

The solution to this problem is double sided.

First is the person delivering the feedback. They need empathy and context. Before swooping in with their big change orders, they should ask themselves a few questions:

  • Would this feedback be helpful at this stage of the project?
  • What kind of feedback was the team asking for?
  • And would the team even be able to act on that feedback right now, or would this blow out the timeline?

Secondly, in the event that someone does have the chance to share late stage feedback, the collaborator might preface their input with humility:

“Hey y’all, I know it’s late in the project, and those who have spent more time on it than me have greater context. Feel free to take this or leave it. Just some things I noticed and wanted to suggest…”

This pre-framing will help make surprise feedback easier to hear and respond to.

Document Everything & Share Knowledge

Well, not everything, of course. But any resources, assets, processes, templates or checklists that need to be repeated or used by more than just yourself, document these in a shared knowledge base.

Why? Documentation removes redundant busywork that kills time and takes you away from your creative craft. You won’t have to re-explain to someone on a call, how to do a thing. You won’t even need to do a call at all.

By documenting anything repeatable, you can focus your energy on the things that require original, critical thinking: the creative work.

A shared knowledge database also helps you operate asynchronously and save you time, since you don’t have to schedule a meeting; the person can simply read through your documentation, study the steps, and get back to you with any questions (which you can respond to on your own time, not in real-time).

Notion is a great tool for this kind of knowledge sharing, and their team has laid out several best practices for asynchronous collaboration.

The best ways to encourage documentation on your team are to:

  1. Make it part of your company’s policy
  2. Set up a tool (e.g. Notion) or organized folder hierarchy (e.g. Google Drive)
  3. Lead by example — document things yourself.

You might be thinking, “But I don’t want to share all my secrets. These are skills that they hired me for!” Quite honestly, this type of close-to-the-chest thinking is outdated and can even get someone fired.

It’s better to document any process that can be repeated; work together to optimize those processes; then delegate those tasks so you can level up to higher-impact creative work.

“If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.”

As you can see, working remotely comes with a whole new set of challenges. I encourage you to try these strategies to collaborate compassionately and asynchronously.

To recap: If you ensure psychological safety, calibrate feedback against potential confusion, and document repeatable steps in a shared knowledge base, your team won’t care if you’re working in your pajamas.

You may discover that async creativity is even more productive than in-office.