Innovation is Taking a Hit

Posted by Patti Mikula on March 2, 2021

The rapid shift to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic raised speculation (and some concerns) about the impact on productivity. Many companies had been resisting growing requests to work from home (or remotely), but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many reluctantly moved to remote workforces. 

A recently released study indicates that those concerns were largely unfounded. In fact, the vast majority (82%) responded that productivity was the same or even better than before the pandemic, a major achievement considering the myriad of disruptions the pandemic layered on top of workers. 

But those “interruptions” that people were happy to do away with in the remote work environment -- the hallway conversations, the pop-ins at one’s desk, the tangents in meetings -- those interruptions were unsung heros in connection and knowledge sharing that sparked discovery, and ultimately innovation. In fact, the same study above found that company culture, team cohesion and the ability to easily collaborate were the biggest pain points cited by employees working remotely.  These are all key elements of innovative organizations. If companies and teams are struggling in these areas, there is bound to be a negative impact on innovation. 

With the benefits of a remote workforce (recruitment, retention, reduced overhead expenses) seemingly outweighing the risks, many companies are considering permanent policy changes. But, while many companies have focused their efforts on technology, security and productivity while transitioning their workforce to flexible and remote-friendly, it is clear that a focus on culture and collaboration is needed now more than ever. 

So how can your company ensure that the focus on productivity isn’t at the expense of innovation?

Working from the confines of your own home, or even from the office where everyone is sequestered to their own cubicle, can leave individuals feeling disconnected from the “big picture”. The independent nature of remote work is great for individual productivity, but can create tunnel vision and siloed thinking. 

Thomas Allen noted and studied the correlation between physical distance between engineers and the frequency in communication, leading to the genesis of the Allen Curve. In his study he identified a critical distance of 50 meters for optimal communication. I would challenge that proximity to the shared coffee pot is also a critical factor. 

Regardless, how does this work with remote work environments? In one sense, if everyone is working remotely then they are all equidistant from each other, leveling the playing field so to speak. But does a Zoom link replicate a proximity of inside or outside of the “connected” zone? It’is critical for companies to nurture opportunities for cross-functional interactions and ensure that teams are still benefiting from diversity of thought. 

In virtual offices there aren’t any random collisions to spark the next big idea. You have to schedule spontaneity. 

Sharing new ideas, especially radical ones, is easier done casually, side of desk or in the waning moments of a meeting, where the risk is low. In person, you have visual cues that your idea is being accepted, and that it has merit. Colleagues, even those that aren’t directly involved in that area of business can support you and boost your confidence in your ideas prompting you to take it further. 

The direct nature of remote work and virtual means of communication can be intimidating. If you have to write out an email, or even a slack post, there is a level of confidence in both your idea and yourself that is required. The message may be edited, watered down or deleted before sending. 

Many remote teams have been able to draw on the social capital built when they were working in close proximity with their colleagues. But now that we are moving into longer durations, and potentially permanent changes, more and more people are finding themselves working with people they have never even met in person. We need to help them build and sustain those social ties and relationships that build reciprocal trust. 

Invoking Innovation

Okay, but HOW? Tools are a good start, and companies are embracing Microsoft Teams, and Slack to counteract that physical isolation. Video calls are important to replicate the missing face-to-face interactions that build connection more deeply than words can. And video calls can provide the visual cues we miss from our in-person connections. Encourage your team members to turn on their video during calls. Our own team has found that sometimes we just stay on our call after wrapping up a scheduled meeting. We all are doing our own work, but there is a sense of connectedness even in our working silence. It is the closest we can get to being in the same space together.  

Beyond simply implementing tools, organizations need to nurture and curate opportunities for connection and collaboration. Regular team/division/company meetings can highlight wins and roadblocks as well as fast failures. This is important so people can see that innovation and taking a risk is rewarded, but also that when there is a hurdle, the whole team comes together to solve it. And celebrating a fast fail is important both to celebrate the lessons learned, and the valiant effort, but also recognize those that stuck their neck out in the pursuit of radical change. Teams need to feel connected and aligned to succeed.

Workshops, round tables, weekly wins lunches can all be done virtually. Send everyone Uber Eats credits in advance and it’s the perfect way to ensure everyone gets what they want. Entice them in with food (just like in the office), and while they are there, create opportunities for random connections. Break people out into separate rooms by birthday, the color of their shirts or other random elements. But know that virtual programming is a lot harder than simply moving it online. Engaging someone remotely is hard. But it can be equally rewarding when it is done right. If the facilitator does the hard work up front, the participants should feel like the event was “just like in person” or better. 

Our work with clients has always been focused on bringing cross-functional groups together to collaborate, on driving product and service development through a user-centric approach, and on building cultures of innovation. But with the increase in remote workforces we have seen specific need to design programs that focus on engagement, collaboration and culture building. These days many of our programs are more focused on the journey than the end result. But the skills, connections and mindset gained along the way are fundamental building blocks of innovation. So perhaps by focusing on the journey we are creating a foundation for the results.