Much of the business world has been working from home since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While some businesses have returned to some degree of in-person collaboration, many have remained remote, and will stay that way for the near future. According to one Intermedia survey, 57% of small businesses expect to stay remote even after pandemic restrictions end.
In the days before the pandemic, businesses dabbled in occasional remote collaboration. Many months in, we’re at the point where companies must consider how to brainstorm and collaborate in a remote “new normal.”
How do you connect with employees to come up with new ideas, launch new initiatives, pursue new strategies, and build your company’s future in an isolated world? Remote work doesn’t have to derail your brainstorming. In fact, now is a more important time than ever to use brainstorming to think creatively about your company’s future.
Why online brainstorming is important right now
Brainstorming helps generate new ideas and empowers people in your organization, especially during these disconnected times. Brainstorming, by its nature, is a communal activity, which should promote community and cooperation between teams that may be lacking right now.
When you brainstorm towards a common goal, you loop in multiple stakeholders and can begin to think about the most important challenges facing your company. The global economy is in decline, small businesses are closing every day, and the future is murky in the midst of this pandemic. Brainstorming could be one of the best ways to think creatively about navigating these difficult times and thriving into the future.
Unfortunately, remote brainstorms present some challenges. When people aren’t in a room together, they may feel less accountable and less inclined to participate. Choppy internet connections can cut people off when they’re speaking; illustrating points is difficult without the presence of a whiteboard or other visual aids and cues. Even the lack of body language can make remote brainstorms feel stilted and unengaging.
That’s why we’ve laid out some things to consider when hosting brainstorming sessions.
How to have effective remote brainstorming sessions
1. Use the right technology
Remote success begins and ends with technology. Technology is essential for strong communication, project management, operations, and every other aspect of your business. Naturally, it’s a crucial element of good brainstorming sessions.
While many companies use video conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Meet to great effect, they don’t quite cover all your brainstorming needs. An effective brainstorming session needs notes.
An online whiteboard is a helpful tool here. Tools like Whiteboard Fox, Conceptboard, and MURAL offer real-time virtual whiteboards that brainstorming participants can contribute to simultaneously. As long as contributors have a Wi-Fi connection, they can add notes, images, texts, drawings, or anything else to illustrate an idea or a point. You would likely use a whiteboard during an in-person brainstorm; there’s no reason you shouldn’t do it remotely, as well.
Additionally, if you’re video conferencing while using the whiteboard, make sure everyone has their cameras on. Research shows that facial expressions and body language make up 55% of communication, so having video on gives you instant insight into how people feel about certain ideas based on their reactions.
2. Distribute an agenda
Nobody wants to sit around for an hour throwing out an occasional idea only to leave a meeting feeling like nothing was accomplished. Before any meeting, you should send out a comprehensive agenda of what you plan to discuss.
For a brainstorming session, your agenda should state the general theme and goal of the meeting a few days beforehand, and invite participants to share any topics they want to cover in the meeting. Then, when the meeting begins, you’ll have a few more granular ideas to explore as a jumping-off point for your session.
Plus, agendas give participants a chance to prepare for the meeting and lets them know you appreciate and value their contributions. That’s crucial to running a successful remote operation.
3. Include everyone
Speaking of making participants feel appreciated, inclusion is crucial to a good brainstorming session. All participants in a brainstorming session should feel they have a real stake in the problem you’re trying to solve or goal you’re trying to reach.
Don’t create groups that are so large that people feel like there’s no point in them being there. A great brainstorming group is about four to eight people, made up of team leaders and core contributors. Also consider inviting a couple of people who aren’t as clued into the problem you’re trying to solve. They will have a more limited idea of what can’t be done, giving them fresher perspective and potentially being able to offer more innovative solutions.
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4. Create a positive environment
Brainstorming sessions should be collaborative, which means inclusive. In remote situations, that can be challenging. Some people may be on mute, some may have cameras off, and some may be very committed to sharing every idea that pops into their head.
Creating a positive environment means reminding participants that there are no bad ideas and that no one person has all the solutions. Facilitating is difficult in an in-person environment. In a remote environment, you should be ready to check-in with participants to make sure everyone is up to speed and following along. That doesn’t mean putting them on the spot with difficult questions, but when you hear a point that falls under the expertise of a quieter participant, steer the conversation their way to see if they can add anything.
5. Try different styles
It may surprise you to hear that there are dozens of different methods of brainstorming. Not every type works for all groups and all problems. Trying different methods of brainstorming can be a good way to figure out what works best for your remote team and helps to keep things interesting.
Of course, be sure to let the team know before the meeting if you’re going to be creating a mind map, doing brain writing, running a S.C.A.M.P.E.R., performing rapid ideation, or other process. If people aren’t familiar with your chosen method, be sure to include a primer on what the brainstorming style entails. Invite them to ask any clarifying questions.
Working remotely alone every day can get lonely; mixing up brainstorming styles can be a productive way to keep people engaged and excited about work.
6. Be transparent and open to feedback
Finally, every team and every problem is unique. Not every brainstorm is going to go perfectly. There will be days when it feels like you’re wasting time, and there will be moments when you wonder if your team is completely checked out. Very few companies have experience being completely remote. We’re all figuring this out together which means you, as a leader, must be transparent about challenges and open to feedback.
Give participants a chance to comment on the meeting either in the last few minutes of the allotted time or privately in a survey or personal message after the meeting. Use their input to make improvements where necessary and don’t give up because of one unproductive brainstorming session.
The bottom line
Running remote brainstorming sessions isn’t easy. Keeping participants engaged, on task, and accountable requires some careful planning and adept facilitation. But if you’re using the right technology, keeping groups small, and running action-oriented, agenda-focused meetings, you’re in good shape to run some high-quality brainstorms. Hopefully, this guide will help you succeed.
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