The mythology of many of society’s greatest scientists, inventors and writers flourishing in splendid isolation makes for great storytelling, true, ongoing innovation is a product of close collaboration and teamwork. With working from home now a relatively permanent state in the business world, here’s a growing realization that while productivity has received a boost, the process of innovation needs rethinking.
As Forbes writes, the now seven-month-long grand work-from-home experiment among knowledge and office workers has shattered many of the pre-conceived notions of managers that it can’t be done in a productive way. However, the ability to foster innovation across solely electronic interactions is still a challenge.
That’s the finding of a recent survey of 9,000 managers and employees across Europe, conducted by Boston Consulting Group and KRC Research, commissioned by Microsoft. Executives say their remote teams have been highly productive, with 82% saying they saw productivity levels either hold steady or increase as people shifted to remote work. More than half also see it as a powerful way to retain top talent.
At the same time, companies’ spirit of innovation has declined precipitously as their workforces got dispersed this year. In a similar survey conducted last year, 56% of executives considered their companies to be innovative with products and services. That percentage dropped to 40% this year.
To some degree, this drop can be attributed to the crisis atmosphere that reigned with the onset of Covid-19 measures. At the same time, managers admit they are not well-versed in handling large swaths of remote workers. A majority, 61%, report they have not learned how to effectively delegate and empower virtual teams.
The lesson learned is that promoting innovation is proving harder than ensuring productivity, the study’s authors point out. The cost of a highly dispersed workforce is “a loss of sense of purpose, which at work, is largely driven through strong and cohesive relationships and seeing how your tasks have impact on others,” reports Dr. Michael Parke, assistant professor at The Wharton School of University of the Pennsylvania and research collaborator. “Both of these are more easily accomplished when people work co-located and are more challenging when working virtually.”
As the Microsoft study bears out, fostering a spirit of innovation online calls for new tools and ways of communicating, and many managers and employees are still on a learning curve. In recent months, I have been going to experts in the fields of management, technology and communications to get their takes on how to approach this new way of working.
For starters, it needs to be said that traditional in-person workplace encounters may often be stifling, and not necessarily supercharging innovative spirits, says Neil Gordon, founder of Neil Gordon Consulting a communications advisory firm. “Getting everyone in the room together holds a certain social order — people are meant to stay in their seats and honor the container set by the leader of the meeting. If someone were to get up and wander around or even leave the meeting outright, it would carry with it enough tension to be disruptive.” In contrast, he continues, “participants in virtual meetings can simply turn off their camera momentarily and do pretty much anything they want in service of their own creative flow – write on their white board, and do push-ups – and then turn their camera back on when they’re done. Thus a savvy manager will give participants agency to turn off their camera if they feel like they need to work something out on their own.”
There are ways to replicate the “serendipity” that helps foster workplace innovation, says Aviv Ben-Yosef, consultant to technology industry executives. “No longer can you overhear a conversation or easily have water cooler conversations,” he says. Open communication is the key starting point. “Create opportunities for serendipity to take place that are adjusted to this situation,” he advises. “Have open communication — no private Slack messages on work-related stuff — so others might notice and chime in. Encourage peer reviews and sessions of working together to prevent people from becoming lost or going off on the wrong track for too long. The key here is communication.”
Secondly, Ben-Yosef advises, “make a conscious effort to use the advantages of this situation to your benefit. Remote environments lend themselves, if used correctly, to uninterrupted work sessions that allow people to achieve and remain in a state of ‘flow’ for longer. Leverage written communication—in an asynchronous environment, a well written paragraph can save a day of back and forth in email or a make a 90-minute meeting take only 15.”
Communication is one critical element of remote work innovation, and leadership is the other. “The question facing companies today is not whether innovation is better done in-person or via remote teams,” says Ravi Gajendran, associate professor of global leadership and management at Florida International University. “The real question now is how can leaders organize remote teams to be innovative. Almost every innovation project leader is likely to have to innovate with team members working remotely. In that sense, most teams today are virtual teams.”
Those organizations with at least some prior experience working together will be able to find ways of getting their work done even when working remotely, Gajendran points out. “Prior trust and goodwill will keep the team processes going even as they transition to remote work.”
Over time, Gajendran cautions, maintaining the “teaminess” of teams is going to be difficult when working remotely. “This is especially true as team members are working under stressful circumstances out of their homes and having to connect electronically over email and Zoom. The team can come unglued pretty fast as members begin to feel psychologically disconnected from one another.” To counteract this, Gajendran advises recognizing that leaders are the glue that can keep teams together. “Leaders can foster member inclusion in remote teams through personalized leadership by reaching out to each member. Frequent communication and a personal connection are critical for members feeling part of the team. When members feel included, they are more likely to contribute their ideas and solutions, which is critical for team innovation.”