It was 9:30 AM on a Monday and I had already accomplished so much. I had discussed story ideas with a coworker, weighed in on color palettes for upcoming art plans and assigned out some creative content briefs. Despite feeling out of sorts with current world events, I actually felt productive. It’s when I started to brainstorm video edits that I remembered I didn’t have any pants on.
I first became attracted to remote work as an editor, commuting into Manhattan from my hometown of Brooklyn. When I started in the magazine industry, there were offices aplenty, many with closed doors that you’d dare not enter for fear of jeopardizing someone’s “flow.” Over the past 10 years, offices turned into cubicles and cubicles turned into long cafeteria-style tables where you could always accidentally overhear a coworker booking their next waxing appointment or a boss whispering a text-fight meant for their significant other (“K period — I don’t care exclamation point”).
When it comes to creativity, there needs to be a harmony between input and output. There’s the talking out of ideas and seeking feedback and throwing everything against a wall, and then comes the quiet and solitary process where a creative product truly crystallizes. I found myself in a world of brainstorm sessions and think tanks without the actual time and space to do anything about the ideas that came from them.
That’s when I took my role as the Director of Content and Community at a high-growth tech startup headquartered in Provo, Utah. The job would be full-time remote (which I saw as a big perk), but I also felt a shard of uncertainty. Could I get creative and inspire my team to do the same through Slack calls and video chats? Would the creative process translate through the tech?
The answer came quickly when I found myself hashing out big picture ideas at the board room table only to then turn my video chat off and remember that I was in my house. My fear of tele-commuting had actually birthed this idea of tele-collaborating, or how elements of remote work feed creativity and collaboration in a way that modern open floor plans sometimes cannot. Little did I know when I accepted the role that a pandemic would occur in the near future, meaning my entire team would be learning in real time, along with me, how to do their best work from their homes.
And I’ve felt that tele-collaboration in ways big and small. Rather than turning your head left and right to account for everyone in the room during a brainstorm, web-conferencing apps like Zoom let you see your entire team (plus anyone else who’s remote) displayed right in front of you on your laptop screen. In an in-person meeting, sometimes typing notes on your computer can seem jarring to other people. But on a video chat, no one can tell that their ideas are inspiring a new Google Doc’s worth of spin-off concepts as you type away without missing a beat. Talking over people can be inevitable in an IRL meeting, but I noticed my coworkers at Chatbooks making hand gestures to convey that they were ready to say something or people throwing the conversation to each other to make sure that everyone had a turn to say their piece. There was a more conscious approach to collaboration because people were aware of their distance — everyone was going above and beyond to foster a closeness that felt tangible all around.
Remote work also comes with a few social graces that I think can make you a better collaborator. Finding yourself tongue-tied in a meeting and need to reset? Just turn your video off for a beat and start over. Want to work in a place that makes you feel most creative? Just pop in your headphones from anywhere in the world and bring your best self to the table. Looking for easy validation? Bask in the arm flex or raised-hands “hallelujah” emojis that rack up after you make an especially good point. In my case, Chatbooks HQ is 2 hours behind New York, which means that I get to collaborate more in the afternoon (which totally aligns with my night owl tendencies).
If all of this sounds like tele-collaborating is the future of work, it’s because it is. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of U.S. employees who telecommuted increased by 115%. It’s also projected that freelance workers will be the majority of the U.S. workforce by 2027. One study even found that telecommuting increased job satisfaction, performance and feelings of commitment to an organization among employees. People who tele-worked also tended to experience less work stress or exhaustion. And with COVID-19, various industries have been forced into work only to find that, yes, it truly can be done.
Tele-collaboration also means more career opportunities for everyone. Where cities with inflated real estate prices have monopolized creative industries, remote work means you can open your door to diverse candidates who bring varied experiences to the table. And, according to a study from SUNY Buffalo, people who seek out solitude tend to be more creative, which makes remote work an interesting litmus test for potential employees in creative fields.
For me, tele-collaborating has meant really showing up for my coworkers in meetings and calls, but also being able to show up for myself when it comes to more tasking work projects. I can share ideas, contribute to the conversation and continue to make great work, with or without pants on.