Working Remotely or Not, Operate Like an Improv Team

Working Remotely or Not, Operate Like an Improv Team

The following is adapted from Shtick to Business.

With the pandemic in play, millions of workers all over the world have been suddenly ousted from their normal workplaces. When a team that usually works face to face is forced to rapidly adjust to remote collaboration, there’s going to problems.

You might have one person away from their computer getting coffee while another doesn’t understand how to use a microphone. Meanwhile, everyone’s distracted by Instagram and Facebook. But working from home doesn’t have to derail your productivity.

Everyone is improvising–all the time. As I’ll explain in this article, by taking a few lessons from the world’s funniest people, you can quickly adjust to this new way of working and enhance collaboration, no matter where you are.

The Constantly Shifting Improv Star

If you’ve ever seen an improv show at famous venues, such as Groundlings, Second City, or Upright Citizens Brigade, there is often an improviser on stage that is head and shoulders above the rest. Someone who seems like a comedic genius.

You leave the show thinking, “Wow, that person is hilarious. Why aren’t they ditching these clowns for the big leagues?”

But if you watch that team repeatedly, the so-called genius often changes from week to week. This makes sense if you understand the way that improv teams work to create a scene—and subsequently comedy—out of nothing.

Improv teams work together to ensure a good show, and teams can mimic their structure to take their collaboration to the next level and avoid many of the conflicts that tear unstructured teams apart.

Improv has Rules

Improvisational comedy formulates funny out of nothingness. I’ll say it again, nothingness.

Improv is comedy born out of a kernel of an idea, unplanned and unrehearsed. The art form is fascinatingly less focused on the audience and more focused on the improv team. If the team functions well, laughs follow. In short, improv is about innovation.

The structure of improv allows for extreme levels of cooperation among the members. It is such a difficult process that there are explicit, agreed-upon rules designed to enhance cooperation. Things like: “Yes, and…” “Make statements.” “Don’t pimp out your partner.”

Many of these rules lead actors to subordinate themselves in service to the scene. They do what’s required to build a scene, create comedic tension, and to help the scene move forward.

More Than, “Yes, and…”

In any given week, when someone shines as a  comedic genius, they shine in large part because their scene partners are setting them up to shine. As an improv actor, you don’t know who is going to stand out in any one scene or any given night—including yourself.

As a business person you may have heard of “Yes, and.” This improv rule has been making the rounds through the business circuit for several years now. Building an entertaining scene out of nothing—the basis for improv—is really difficult. It requires that the performers agree with (i.e., “yes”) and build upon (i.e., “and”) each other’s ideas.

But there is more to it than agreeing with people. Good business doesn’t always come from agreeing. It comes from working together towards a common goal — especially if that goal is how to keep the company afloat during difficult times.

An improv group’s success, like a business team’s, depends almost entirely on their ability and willingness to collaborate fairly and without ego. In other words, everyone involved has to be okay with sharing the spotlight.

Del Close, one of the fathers of improv, had a saying, “You are all supporting actors.”

Improv sizzles if each actor supports the other actors, going where they lead, building on their ideas, and giving them what they need in a scene. Even the superstars of improv, such as Amy Poehler or Jimmy Fallon, look good because the people around them are setting them up to shine as a star on stage.

“We are all supporting actors” is consistent with a saying that is so common it has become a proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And you can bet this applies to your career as much as improv.

Listen Like an Improviser

Now that you know a good improv team works together, sets each other up for success, and builds on each other’s progress, answer this question: what skill makes all of that possible?


Did you hear me? If you take any piece of advice from this improv article into the workplace, it’s to value and improve the skill of listening.

In the context of your career, listening is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, nearly everyone wants to look smart (especially in a meeting). The impulse is to jump straight in and present “the answer.” It feels good to show off and be the one with the solution.

If you hang back and listen first, someone else might get all the glory. And when you’ve presented a solution, you don’t want to hear any naysayers, so you don’t listen to feedback. Someone might disagree with you, and you might have to change your mind.

But remember, everyone in improv is a supporting actor. To have a seamlessly collaborative team in the workplace, each member must be willing to listen to each other, set each other up for success, and share in the victories or you will not make progress as a group.

In any case, make sure your mic is working before jumping in.

Make Your Teamwork Look Effortless

In the world of comedy, especially in improv, there is no, “I’m more important than you.”

During these trying times, when we’re all out of our element and stressed about the world, it’s more important than ever to support our colleagues and work together.

Embracing the philosophy that we are all supporting actors is a helpful concept, both on and off stage. I encourage you to take that mindset into the workplace, because whether in your home offices or standing on the Groundlings comedy stage, if you don’t work together, you will fail together.

When you’re willing to share in the spotlight, however, your teamwork will look as effortless as the world’s most seamless improv group.

Now ask yourself, “How can I support my team?” Ask your team, “How can I support you?” And again ask yourself, “What support do I need?”