Embrace the Chaos: How to Run a Creative Team During a Pandemic

Jon Racinskas
Creative Consultant
December 6, 2021
Photo by nikohoshi on Unsplash

Nothing Great is Made Alone

After nearly two years of listening with a growing sense of concern to the sound of my own head banging against the off-camera wall in my home office, I believe I have finally managed to figure out how to run a creative team during a pandemic.

Creatives who thrive in an agency environment are collaborative by nature. Their ideas are strengthened and refined by running them through the gauntlet of peer review. Whiteboards covered in varieties of handwriting and suggestions provide the roadmap for success. But in an effort to keep everyone healthy by distancing them from each other, we’ve essentially taken away their greatest tools for producing their best work. No more whiteboard sessions, no more huddles around monitors. Just Google Meets and sweatpants.

Creatives Need to Adapt to a Hybrid Working World

So, having handicapped the creative process, what is a Creative Director to do? Deadlines are agnostic of process, and most clients are, too. You’re still responsible for delivering exceptional work on time, every time, but your process hasn’t just been interrupted, it has been forced to suddenly evolve.

Morning Meetings Hold Much More Meaning

The first thing to address is peer review. I’d been known to push back on the account team’s desire to employ an Agile framework for everything, but in the absence of face-to-face interactions, I’ve come to rely on it for projects that can be managed like sprints. At 9:15 every morning, the creative team gathers in a Google Meet for a scrum. We call it a “rundown” in order to make it look like we’re not embracing Agile, but it’s a scrum.

Because we’re not able to do it in person, we begin our “rundown” with a bit of chit-chat (strictly verboten in a true scrum). This usually consists of a bit of good-natured teasing and some moaning about whatever’s bothering us at the moment. With that out of the way, we go together to the Production Board on Asana. As a team, we review where we are on every project on the board. We discuss the work produced so far and offer our critiques. Lacking the ability to gather around each other’s monitors, we share our screens, or, when using tools that allow real-time collaboration, like Figma, we jump into the project and take a look around. We leave notes directly on the work before formulating a plan to get the revisions in and make delivery.

Work Backwards from the Backlog and Cherish the Brainstorm

Next up, we review the backlog to see what’s on the horizon. (Horizons seem to be especially welcome in this time of uncertainty.) Most of these projects will require brainstorming sessions to be scheduled.

While I can’t speak for everyone else on the team, I live for those brainstorming sessions. I feed off the creative energy that fills the room as we all take to the whiteboard and attempt to illustrate our ideas. The whiteboard is the most valuable tool we have for the creative process.

However, we have yet to find a good analog for this tool. Google’s Jamboardis interesting, but it’s not quite right for us. (If yours is a sticky note-based process, you might like this one, but we’re doodlers.) There are others we’ve tried, but none so far have satisfactorily managed to recreate the whiteboard experience for remote working. Over time, we’ve adapted a number of tools to replicate aspects of the whiteboard experience. For example, we’ll quickly mock things up in Illustrator and throw a screenshot on our Slack channel or sketch in notebooks, and use iMessage to share. Whatever it takes to get your idea across has become our operating principle.

Actually Hang Out in the Google Hangout

A meeting of the minds is possible from afar as long as the minds are in sync. Teams are made up of individuals, each with their own perspective and experiences, which make up the way in which they process things. Therefore, if you take the time to learn and understand how each other thinks, you can find ways to communicate your ideas to each other effectively.

That being said, lacking the ability to interact outside the bezels of a device makes creative sync extremely difficult. If like me, you were a COVID hire, you likely don’t have pre-existing IRL relationships with most of the team that you can rely upon. How, then, does one develop these types of relationships remotely? Here’s something that works for us: keep the Google Meet going after the actual meeting. Even if everyone is working in silence, they’re still in the same space. You get to hear the way we all mutter to ourselves when we’re reading copy, tap rhythms on desktop items when we’re stuck, and, best of all, have the ability to interrupt what we’re doing to ask random questions, just like IRL. Try it sometime. You’ll either love it or be totally creeped out by it.

Embrace the Chaos

Finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned over the course of these many months is: Embrace the chaos. Things aren’t like they used to be right now. That’s just life in a time of COVID. My advice: don’t mourn the loss of the old ways. Find new ways to do what you do. Different ways. Smarter ways. Better ways to do your best work. Just remember that amidst all this chaos lies something you really love – creating cool stuff with cool people.

Have you found tools and methods that are working well for your team? Please let us know!



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