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Seeking “Burstiness” When Working from Home

I was first introduced to the concept of “burstiness” by psychologist Adam Grant in his podcast, “Worklife.” In one episode, he visits the writers’ room at “The Daily Show” and probes the creativity that crackles when those writers were on a roll. A big part of that energy, according to Grant, was because of “burstiness.”

The term was initially coined by Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Burstiness is, according to Grant,

“like the best moments in improv jazz. Someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and pretty soon, you have a collective sound that no one planned. Most groups never get to that point, but you know burstiness when you see it. At ‘The Daily Show,’ the room just literally sounds like it’s bursting with ideas.”

Last week, we reran a post I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic wondering if we might be forsaking some important elements of team effectiveness in our rush to embrace the virtual workplace. Our brains have evolved to be most effective in creating relationships with others when we’re face-to -ace. There is a rich bandwidth of communication through which we build trust in others that is reliant on physical proximity.

Zoom just doesn’t cut it.

So, would this idea of burstiness be sacrificed in a remote work environment? Let’s dig a little deeper.

Grant outlines the things that need to be in place for burstiness to occur:

  • Spending time with each other
  • Psychological safety
  • A proper balance of structure
  • The right people in the room

Let’s look at these in reverse order.

The right people in the room

First, how do you get the right people in the room – or, in the case of a remote workforce, on the same Zoom call? Here, diversity seems to be the key. You need different perspectives. Creativity comes from diversity, not sameness.

Dr. Woolley offers the example of the Kennedy and Lincoln presidential cabinets. Kennedy’s cabinet was comprised of Ivy League intellectual elites who all came from similar backgrounds and had the same ideological view of the world. Lincoln’s cabinet was fractious, to say the least. After his election, Lincoln reached out to bitter rivals who ran against him for the presidency — including Salmon Chase and William Seward — and gave them senior positions in his cabinet. Lincoln’s cabinet is generally considered by historians as the most effective political team in American history. Kennedy’s cabinet suffered from a debilitating case of “groupthink” that launched the Bay of Pigs invasion and almost ignited another world war.

There is no reason why a virtual workplace cannot embrace diversity. You just have to recruit the right people through bias-resistant practices like blind auditions and using multiple interviewers.

A proper balance of structure

Grant says the right structure provides the rules of engagement for creative bursts. You need some basic guidelines so you can focus on the work and not the mechanics of the process. To use Grant’s example, jazz improv seems unstructured, but there are actually some commonly understood ground rules on which the improvisation is built.

This brings to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, the condition where creativity just flows naturally. Structure allows Flow to happen by providing the structure the brain needs to focus wholly on the task at hand. There is no reason why the structure can’t apply equally to traditional and virtual work teams.

But the next two conditions get a little trickier for the virtual workplace. Let’s look at them together:

Psychological safety and spending time together

Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. When it comes to promoting “burstiness,” psychology safety gives us the confidence to contribute without being punished or ridiculed. It allows us to take creative risk. Another word for it would be trust.

And that brings us to second part — spending time together — and the challenge for that in a virtual workplace. Trust is not built overnight, and it is not built over Zoom or Slack.

As I said in my previous post, organizational behavior specialist Mahdi Roghanizad from Ryerson University has found that the connections in our brains that create trust may not even be activated unless we’re face-to-face with someone. We need eye contact to nudge this part of ourselves into life.

So, if creativity is a requirement in the workplace, and connecting face-to-face is required to foster creativity, is a virtual office a non-starter? Not necessarily. In my next post, I’ll look at some ways we might have still be able to have burstiness — even when we’re at home in our pajamas.