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Karen Kusch: Critique is the backbone of creative ideas.

A sense of togetherness in a virtual world. During the global lockdown that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, messages of unity, compassion, understanding, and trust were widespread and continue to be so, even as many institutions and events reopen. Whether in education, in banking, in healthcare, in business, the concept of remote work slammed into our lives with a sledgehammer-like force, knocking us into a very alien reality. Karen Kusch, a partner at Kusch Consulting, has 20 years of corporate experience in the field of future work and global collaboration, so for her, this scenario hits very close to home.

“Consulting people in the field of future work is a privilege” Karen said, especially now that it’s being implemented more readily due to the outbreak of the coronavirus and all the pressures that came with it. Our work lives are changing. We’re adopting a more diverse mode of work and embracing remote work opportunities.

“Everyone is unique,” she added. “Everyone is learning, living, experiencing life differently with different cultural elements. Therefore, I believe, and have always believed, we need to enable people with environments, opportunities, and the autonomy to work in a virtual way that works for them.”
Integrating creativity and practicing creative leadership while strategically designing a future in virtual work is absolutely possible. According to Karen, being creative and leading virtually depends on three very essential elements: trust, effective virtual leadership, and preparing adequately for it.

“Trust is the most fundamental thing that will make it work,” Karen explained. “Create social time and space in virtual work. You need a virtual coffee break. You need to really create clear processes. Understanding the individual dynamics of the team situations, as well as being a supportive leader are crucial. You need to respect your team, offer gratitude, be kind, be honest. You need to assume that there’s a positive intent of what people do. Preparing adequately means not focusing only on what you do, but key in virtual work is how you are going to do things, what tools and methods you will use. There is certainly more preparation needed in the planning.”

The lockdown brought to light some challenging dynamics of remote work: distraction and motivation. You may have a shelf full of books on your to-be-read list, Netflix and other video streaming services, children trying to entertain themselves while being kept home from school. However, in effective virtual teams leaders gain the needed team commitment to drive engagement and activity. Karen also highly recommends a separation between work and home spaces when possible; she admits it is certainly a luxury, but truly a gamechanger in such circumstances.

“It’s important to create some kind of division within your home where you work. I don’t think you can actually underestimate in all cases the umbrella of the topic COVID-19, because it adds a whole new layer to the topic of remote work, which is the psychological challenges of it all. I can’t really go out, I’ve got to deal with these other issues while I’m at home, maybe elderly parents, sickness, children, and other things that I don’t normally have to deal with when I’m going into work.”

Despite all these challenges, people do tend to get the hang of remote work rather quickly, to accept this new norm. This could be attributed to the quality of virtual leadership and virtual teamwork. It is essential to understand that these times of the COVID-19 restrictions are unique, particularly with children being around. Work conditions vary, and any leader who doesn’t understand these distinctions doesn’t truly see the bigger picture of the challenges that go with virtual work.

“Creating an inclusive environment for all the team is absolutely essential in virtual work,” Karen noted. “The leader has a really, really important role to build this commitment in the team, by motivating them and having really clear responsibilities in the team and providing psychological safety that people can be themselves and speak up. The thing that I have learned over the years is silence is the biggest killer of virtual work.”

In preparing for effective virtual work within a team, leaders tend to struggle more than employees with virtual work. They rely on face to face interactions. Leaders have the sometimes daunting task of bringing a sense of togetherness, which is often easier said than done, particularly when they can’t see people in person.

“When you’re working virtually and you’re preparing to innovate, you need to really plan your sessions, to have the right tools and enough of them to deal with different things, somewhere to post online, somewhere to blog online, somewhere to brainstorm online… On top of that, you need to take time to digest. If you don’t plan your sessions and think about how you’re going to do it, it won’t succeed.”

Karen believes critique is the backbone of a good idea; it helps develop it, construct it, mold it into something that can become real. Without it, creativity can’t thrive, and how does one get critiqued? By being brave enough to speak up. For her, that’s been the thread she clings to, and why Sonophilia is so valuable to her. It tests her ideas, her expectations, her assumptions about so many topics she’d never imagined being relevant to her.

“The inspiration from these events is phenomenal,” she said. “Even an artist, who you think is always able to churn out paintings, gets stuck in the creative process… and [moves] on from it by approaching things differently. That’s the beauty of Sonophilia. You meet so many different people. You get so many different perspectives, but fundamentally, everyone in that group is human and is facing some challenges of their own. Here you can share it and get really concrete, solid feedback that helps you move forward.”

Click here to listen to the full interview on our new podcast series.

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