Microsoft and LinkedIn employees organize community to explore creativity

Peter and Todd

You may have never picked up a guitar, stood at an easel, or composed a stanza in iambic pentameter in your entire life. Perhaps the thought of writing a book, singing a song, or executing an elaborate dance feels about as plausible for you as walking on the moon.

But for the community of people at Microsoft and LinkedIn interested in these kinds of creative endeavors, there’s a space for these activities to thrive unbridled—and where colleagues can connect through and practice creativity.

The Conscious Creativity Community, a collaborative project started by employees from both companies, was born out of the idea that everyone is creative.

Peter McFadden“Creativity is essential to culture, and that’s the fundamental premise why we started this community,” says Peter McFadden, one of the group’s organizers.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering workplaces worldwide in early 2020, Peter, a Microsoft business program manager, and Todd Donahue, a LinkedIn communication designer—introduced through a mutual friend—suddenly found time to connect.

As they got to know each other, the pair learned they had similar interests in building community between the two companies, maintaining some semblance of social normalcy with colleagues in the time of remote work, and using creativity and artistic expression to cultivate and support wellbeing—at a time when it seemed everyone was looking for it.

Todd DonahueTodd had some experience building a similar effort. In 2019 he launched the “Creative Community Conversation Series” project. That series had him interviewing LinkedIn co-workers about creativity and artistic expression in life and work, and how creative side pursuits helped cultivate wellbeing in their lives.

In March of 2020 that project evolved into a new social space he created on Microsoft Teams for LinkedIn colleagues to connect, initially called the Conscious Creativity Group, that would be an expansion of the Creative Community Conversation Series project. He began inviting LinkedIn colleagues at work to join it, and then Microsoft folks as well.

“Peter and I started talking about creativity, learning, many different things,” Todd recalls about the early days. “He joined me early on as one of the co-leads and became active in the community right away. Together we developed this common vision to grow and evolve it into something that was for all our colleagues.”

Re-engaging the creative side

In no time, the friends were using Teams to spread the word about this new, evolved effort. They were delighted to see how quickly they could locate eager, like-minded co-workers.

“Teams is such an amazing tool for connecting with colleagues all around the world,” says Todd. “I went in there and did a search for any group at LinkedIn or Microsoft that had anything to do with creativity, art, wellbeing, mindfulness, compassion, any of that kind of stuff. Then I just posted a note in the main group chat’s that we had started this new Teams group and invited them to join us.”

In less than two years, the group has expanded to include more than 650 members around the world, united in this safe space for employees to connect and practice creativity.

Todd helped set the tone early via challenges that urged members to do things like write an email to themselves granting permission to connect to their creativity “to dream, to innovate, to ideate, to connect with a sense of wonder, awe and lifeforce,” then encouraging them to read that email to themselves every morning for a week.

In the time since, the community has held live events; hosted a conversation series where people across the companies are invited to have a live interview on how creativity shows up in their life and work; put on writing workshops, presented occasional creative practice sessions (which Peter describes as “our bootcamp”); and produced a Music and Art Series which pairs musicians with artists for collaboration and a live show that takes place on Teams. They have also combined efforts with adjacent Teams communities like The Artists Alley and the Microsoft Art Collection, further supporting self-expression within Microsoft.

Night Sky by Chris Nguyen

Night Sky by Chris Nguyen, a Microsoft employee and member of the Conscious Creativity Community

We’re connecting with amazing musicians, painters and poets, people who like to sketch, and everything in-between,” says Peter. “But even people who haven’t picked up a pencil in ten years or tried to write a rhyme in 20 years have instead been doing data science or machine learning during that time. That still requires creativity; re-engaging that part of the brain can help them at work and connecting with people in that way has been really rewarding.”

Creating and connecting

“Our community has become a welcoming place where everyone can explore creativity in their own way, sharing and learning from others when they want to,” Peter says of the group’s mindset, which doesn’t require any formal commitment or membership, yet has an impressive number of active regulars.

“We do things like a 3-month writing workshop, one class per month, where we build on the previous class each time. People jump in and out, it’s all recorded, so people in different time zones can watch whenever they like.”

Todd says a sketching group is in development, and points to the group’s Music and Art Series as another example of what the community can do when they come together.

“It began with art being a supportive component, but then it grew into the Music and Art Series that we now have once a month,” he says. “We pair up a musician from either Microsoft or LinkedIn with one visual artist — could be a dancer, could be a painter — and they collaborate. Then, we have a live event held via Microsoft Teams, and the entire community is invited. Recently, we had two musicians from Microsoft Tokyo, paired with a dancer and a visual artist from LinkedIn in California. They collaborated for a month, then at the live event shared details about their collaboration, pictures, video, and played some music. It’s such a neat way to connect.”

Christine and Scott

An artwork collaboration from the group’s Music and Art Series – artists Christine Zmuda (Microsoft) and Scott Shute (LinkedIn)

The Conscious Creativity Community intentionally keeps its parameters loose and open to interpretation, allowing everyone to find their muse.

“We invite people to create their own events, create their own recurring series. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to do their passion projects,” adds Todd. “Anybody can join us to create things, share things — some are starting their own podcasts — whatever they want to do.”

But almost as important as the art itself, what the Community is about is providing a place where people can connect.

“The connection piece is really important. This is a safe space, but it’s also a way of connecting,” Peter explains. “We all live in so many meetings and so many documents every day; this provides an avenue where people can connect in a different way from your typical meeting.”

Asked to give an example of the prompts you might receive in a Conscious Creativity Community event; Peter brings up one that got some particularly fruitful results.

“At the creative practice we run, we’ll say something like: In the next two minutes, I need you to finish a drawing. We’re going to take a famous line from a movie and then you’re going to finish the scene,” he explains.

Halle Renfro

3-minute drawing by Microsoft’s Halle Renfro

“Keep in mind, these are things people wouldn’t normally be doing in their day-to-day jobs as programmers or engineers or account executives. What the practice does is give you permission to take time for yourself and explore such things with other people.”

From the Bay Area to beyond

If the Conscious Creativity Community feels like an idea that could only begin in the San Francisco Bay Area, it should — both Todd and Peter are based there. It’s also an idea likely to continue growing in scope, as it carries intrinsic appeal to new hires — whether they are joining Microsoft or LinkedIn, whether they already have creative or artistic talents they wish to continue fostering, or whether they are simply looking for a way to become acquainted with new friends and colleagues at work, locally and worldwide.

“Whenever I’ve moved to another city, one of the first things I always do is find out what kind of creative, art, music, and community things they have going on, and find social groups to connect with around things like this that I’m interested in,” Todd says. “The Conscious Creativity Community provides a similar social opportunity for introverts and extroverts alike, as well as everyone in-between. When you work with us at Microsoft and LinkedIn, this is just one of many group spaces you’ll find opportunities to express yourself in if you’d like.”

Peter agrees, believing that such groups could become more commonplace across industries in the years to come.

“Creativity is a huge part of not only today, but the future. Having a community where people can connect through creativity is a really important thing, to prepare us for the future and prepare us for the now,” he says. “The pandemic escalated so much of this need, for a lot of us.”

The group has plans to lean into their growth, potentially even growing its presence in the workplace. As an example, they point to all the moments spent at the beginning of video calls, waiting for everyone to sign on, waiting for the meeting to begin.

What if, rather than losing that time, there was a prompt, e.g., written, slide, graphic or video, encouraging attendees to ponder on something creative, or do something like doodle or sketch a quick picture of the Mona Lisa from memory if they’d like, then compare the results? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to put a smile on faces and get those creative juices flowing?

“Finding what creativity means to you is so important; everyone is creative, but how it manifests itself in people can vary wildly,” Peter explains. “There are people who cannot imagine going a whole day without playing guitar, then there are others in the middle of their life who just started sketching in a notebook for the first time. Being able to define that for yourself and working with others to define what it means in the workplace, what it means for the company and how it will be real for you every day, that’s important.”

With more than 180,000 Microsoft and LinkedIn colleagues worldwide, they hope to get their membership “into the thousands,” says Peter.

“One of the really exciting things about this community is it’s just starting. There’s a limitless potential from the creative side, so people keep bringing ideas. When you connect over music or art or drawing, writing, poetry or whatever, that can be powerful and transformative. It’s a great time to get into the creativity culture.”

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