Innovation in a Remote Working Environment

A big concern about hybrid and remote working is that it will stifle ad-hoc innovation and collaboration opportunities. With some minimal effort and foresight, a lack of innovation can be avoided.
January 19, 2022
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It has become a bit of an exercise in stating the obvious to mention that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world, particularly the world of work. Yet, video conferencing, remote work, and hybrid models weren’t inventions of the pandemic and, in all cases, are technologies and approaches that a portion of the workforce has utilized for decades.

Sure enough, the pandemic made remote work the norm for most of the world’s knowledge workers. As companies contemplate returns to the office or some type of hybrid model, many workers are going on record with their preference to continue remote or hybrid work.

The Remote Working Challenge

Pre-pandemic, remote work wasn’t done at scale in most organizations. Even people that weren’t tied to a specific office location were encouraged to “come into the office” periodically as high-profile organizations like IBM and Yahoo reversed their “remote first” policies and demanded a return to the physical office.

The difficult transition from “two weeks to flatten the curve” to long-running “social distancing” policies proved without a doubt that many knowledge workers, and entire teams and organizations, could work productively outside a traditional office. This forced global experiment was the final nail in the coffin of productivity-based objections to remote work. However, many executives and leaders still expressed a desire to return to in-office work when feasible.

The most common reasons cited for preferring in-office work were generally a variation of culture and innovation. Culture is a separate topic, but leaders worried that hundreds of nomadic workers would lack a sense of connectedness to the company when away from the office. 

On the innovation front, leaders legitimately worried that remote working eliminated the chance for “impromptu innovation.” The classic example was someone from one department chatting with someone from an unrelated department while waiting for coffee or at the water cooler and discovering an opportunity to collaborate and innovate.

This thinking seems reasonable—most of us probably don’t take regular road trips to a random colleague’s office or pick an unfamiliar name from the company directory and set up an impromptu Zoom or Teams chat. There’s obviously a benefit to collaborating with others outside your usual network. This seems particularly relevant for technologists who might have broad experience with different parts of the company and could spark innovation when paired with an expert in another department.

However, in a tight labor market where remote productivity has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, can companies justify another mass workforce transition hoping that random “hallway conversations” turn into the next innovative program?

You’re Already Innovating Remotely

One recurring misguided theme of remote work is that innovation is impossible. Yet, many companies are already innovating with partners and vendors remotely. Companies like BairesDev offer innovation labs, and your teams have likely created their own unstructured versions of innovation labs already.

There is an emerging set of collaboration tools from the native whiteboard feature in Zoom, to apps like Miro that attempt to recreate the experience of placing sticky notes on a whiteboard. Of course, the tools alone don’t create innovation, but many savvy teams have found techniques that work well in a remote environment and that you can likely find and scale within your organization.

Innovating Remotely

It’s true that it’s difficult to replicate a full-day in-person session, surrounded by whiteboards and people shoulder-to-shoulder in a remote environment, but it’s not impossible to innovate in such a setting with some forethought. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with “video fatigue,” the tendency to lose energy faster when working via video versus in-person. One of the best ways to combat this tendency is to use video for short, focused bursts of collaboration, followed by an hour or two of “cameras off” individual work.

I find that 90-120 minutes is the maximum time for video-based sessions where intensive collaboration is required, so maximizing the value created during that time is the key to successful remote innovation. Some of the best ways to maximize this time are:

1) Consider forming broad innovation teams composed of people generally interested in exploring new ideas from various backgrounds in your company. Invite them to sessions outside their areas of expertise to duplicate the “watercooler interactions” of different departments collaborating in an unplanned setting.

2) Use a “pre-read” document to share background information and any other baseline content required to participate in the session effectively. Not everyone will read the document, but if you make it short, compelling, and provide information on how long it will take to read, you’ll maximize uptake.

3) Have experienced facilitators guide the session with a defined plan. Try to alternate between “presenting” and group discussion. Ruthlessly avoid and stop individuals who monopolize the group’s time with long expositions. There’s nothing that kills remote collaboration faster than a single individual rambling on and dominating the discussion.

4) Capture the group’s thinking in a public manner. This could be as simple as sharing an empty document and taking notes as the discussion flows, or as elaborate as creating templates and worksheets that are completed “live” based on the discussion. Showing visual progress keeps the group motivated and focused.

5) Share the outcomes and next steps after the meeting so participants see the results of their efforts and how they’ll inform the organization.

As you design your session, consider the participant experience, striving to make it fun, collaborative, and valuable. If you create something productive, engaging, and fun, you’ll develop a powerful ability to innovate remotely. With an additional focus on the participant experience, word will quickly spread that innovation is not only possible remotely, but it’s an activity that’s worth joining.

Remote innovation may not duplicate the prolonged, intense focus of an in-person session, but you can string multiple short sessions together to create a similar effect. Use the advantage of “processing time” between each session to refine and document ideas, and perhaps further develop a concept that would be cast by the wayside during a full-day session. You also gain the ability to engage employees, partners, and outside experts without the constraints of geography or the expense and hassle of travel and logistics.

Done well, remote innovation can be a different yet equally valuable element of your overall innovation strategy.

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