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Apple, googleand other companies that require employees to spend most or all of their time in the office claim that the time they spend working remotely is stifling innovation. According to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said: “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity. You run into each other during the day and bring up an idea you just had. And you really have to be together to do that.”
But is this true? On the one hand, Research at MIT found that remote working weakens the cross-functional, inter-team “weak ties” that form the basis for the exchange of new ideas that foster innovation. A study Microsoft similarly found that remote working weakens innovation because employees interact less with people outside their own team.
On the other hand, McKinsey Research points to a different conclusion. It found that over the more than two years of the pandemic, there have been a record number of new patents among 150 global patent applicants. In addition, global venture capital more than doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, up 111%. McKinsey suggests that this is because more innovative companies have developed new ways to connect telecommuters to build and maintain the cross-functional, inter-term bonds necessary for innovation, expanding the pool of minds that could generate new ideas. Deloitte in the same way highlights how adapting the innovation process to external institutions holds the key to driving innovation for hybrid and remote teams.
Related: Maintaining a Collaborative Culture in a Hybrid and Remote World
my experienceHelping 21 organizations transition to hybrid and telecommuting demonstrates that innovation is eminently feasible. But it requires: apply best practices addressing the weakening of cross-functional connections and the lack of natural spontaneous interactions that generate innovation. Unfortunately, companies like Apple and Google have adopted a traditionalist perspective on how to innovate, which ironically hinders innovation.
An excellent technique for innovation in hybrid teams and remote teams to replace random hallway conversation that generates innovation is to rely on collaboration software such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. What you need to do is set up a specific channel in that software to facilitate the creativity, spontaneity and collaboration behind casual innovation and encourage employees to use that channel.
For example, in a late-stage SaaS startup using Microsoft Teams, each small team of six to eight people set up a team-specific channel for members to share innovative ideas relevant to the team’s work. Likewise, larger business units have established channels for ideas that apply to the entire business unit. When someone had an idea, they were encouraged to share that idea in the relevant channel.
We’ve encouraged everyone to pay attention to the notifications in that channel. If they saw a new post and found the idea relevant, they would respond with additional thoughts building on the original idea. Responses would snowball, and enough good ideas would then lead to the next steps, often a brainstorming session.
This approach combines a native virtual format with people’s natural motivations to contribute, collaborate and claim credit. The poster with the first idea and subsequent contributors are not only motivated by the goal of moving the team or business unit forward, even though that is of course part of their stated goals. The first poster is motivated by the opportunity to share an idea that can be considered innovative, practical and useful enough to implement, with some revisions. The contributors, in turn, are motivated by the natural desire to provide advice, especially advice that is visible and useful to others in their team, business unit, or even the entire organization.
Related: Six Tactics to Improve Collaboration for Remote Teams
This dynamic also fits well with the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You will notice that the first are generally the ones who post the first ideas. Their strength is innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, but their flaw is that they are risk-blind to the potential problems in the idea. In turn, pessimists will primarily serve to build on and improve the idea, pointing out its potential shortcomings and helping to address them.
Remember not to underestimate the contributions of pessimists. It’s too common to pay undue attention to the first ideas and over-reward optimists – and I say this myself as an inveterate optimist, who has 20 ideas for breakfast and thinks they’re all brilliant! Through the combination of personal bitter experience and research into optimism and pessimism, I have learned the need to let pessimistic colleagues test and improve my ideas. My clients have benefited greatly from greatly appreciating such devil’s advocate perspectives.
Therefore, you should not only praise and reward the originators of innovative ideas, but also the two to three people who contributed most to improving and completing the idea. And that’s what the startup company did at a late stage. The team or business unit leaders made sure to publicly acknowledge the contributions of both the original idea generators and the idea improvers, and also gave them a bonus commensurate with the value of their contributions. Several of these ideas eventually led to patent applications.
While this technique helps to address the problem of spontaneous interactions, what about the attenuation of cross-functional bonds? To address that issue while improving the integration of recently hired staff, we had the SaaS company set up a hybrid remote mentoring program.
Several mentors were involved in the program. One came from our own team of recently recruited employees. That mentor helped the mentee understand group dynamics, workplace learning, and professional growth.
However, we also included two mentors from other teams. One of them came from the same business unit as the junior staff, another came from a separate business unit. The roles of these two mentors included integrating the new employee into the wider company culture, facilitating collaboration between teams, and strengthening the “weak ties” among corporate staff to foster collaboration.
Six months after these two interventions, the SaaS company reported a remarkable boost in innovation across the board. The channels dedicated to innovation have contributed to the emergence of a number of new projects. The mentor-mentee relationships resulted in mentees providing a fresh and creative look at the company’s existing work, while the mentors from outside the team helped spark productive conversations within teams that lead to further innovation and collaboration.
If a late-stage startup with 400 employees could adopt these techniques, so can Apple and Google. Sure, some tasks are best done in person, such as sensitive staff conversations, intense collaborative discussions, key decision-making and strategic conversations, and fun team building events. But the more tasks you can do remotely, the better. The future belongs to companies that can make the best use of human resources around the world while minimizing the time wasted commuting during rush hour. To do this, adoption is required best practices for hybrid and remote workinginstead of being stuck in the past.