Dr. John Sullivan and Michael Cox
After your firm eventually expands its remote workforce to over 50%, anticipate a boost in productivity. Also, expect a painful reduction in innovation unless you take the right proactive actions. Now you might initially think that this loss of innovation is an okay trade-off. Especially because of the dramatic overhead cost reductions and the numerous recruiting benefits associated with remote work. But that would be a mistake. The boost provided by widespread innovation may be the single most important strategic factor in pulling your organization out of its current downturn. Instead of treating this innovation loss among Working From Home (WFH) employees as inevitable. In this article, we present a series of ideas or actions that are designed to minimize or even eliminate that innovation loss.
First Understand Why “Coming To Work” Enhances Innovation
As recently as 2017, IBM, which for decades has been a publicly visible champion of WFH work, abruptly ordered its employees to begin “coming into the office.” Numerous organizations including Apple, Facebook, and Amazon had all previously adopted this “come to the office” strategy. Based, in part, on Google and Harvard data that revealed that when “watercooler talks” were encouraged among rapidly learning employees working on different teams that collaboration increased. And that collaboration initially helped to refine employee ideas. Next, this collaboration also increased the number of employees willing to work on the best ideas, and that directly increased the number of ideas that are implemented. As a side benefit, a subtle form of competitive pressure was created. This subtle pressure encourages each employee to continue their self-directed leading-edge learning and the need for new solutions intensifies. In leading-edge companies, it is no longer enough to marginally make your process more efficient so employees can avoid any embarrassment by having compelling ideas to share during every future “serendipitous meeting.”
Remote Work Has Inherent Innovation Roadblocks That Must Be Overcome
The well-established “come to the office” strategy has, through no fault of its own, ceased to be as effective during the pandemic. First, public distancing rules at work will drastically separately worktables and therefore purposely reduce the opportunities for collaborative conversations. And, at least initially, the continuous fear of catching the virus during their commute and while at work will be so distracting to employees that innovative thinking may literally grind to a halt. Although working at home will provide an environment that is free from fear. Having to rely on email and text communications will simultaneously reduce the excitement and trust levels that were previously generated with face-to-face meetings and collaboration. If you expect your working from home employees to generate even a fraction of your previous innovation levels, you will need to implement several innovation catalyst ideas.
Ideas To Try – Actions For Increasing Remote Worker Innovation
Unfortunately, there is not a single comprehensive benchmark solution that has been implemented by a major company. However, there are a series of individual actions that have proven to be effective when they were implemented alone. So, if it is your responsibility to boost remote worker innovation. You will need to put together the right combination of individual actions that best fits your company’s needs and culture. The easiest to implement actions are listed first.
- Put someone in charge of WFH innovation. Since most of the recommended individual actions come under the people management heading, a senior person in HR must be made responsible and accountable for WFH innovation. They must design a data-driven process for measuring and then increasing the volume and the quality of innovations that come from remote workers. HR must then provide managers with a toolkit that allows individual managers to pick and choose the handful of innovation stimulating actions that are most appropriate for their team.
- Spread the word on the economic value of innovation. It’s no coincidence that the firms that are consistently rated as serial innovation firms are also consistently the top-ranked firms in market cap (currently Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook). Your business case should start by outlining the business case elements for a permanent shift to “remote work.” Don’t do it alone, instead work with your CFO to make and distribute your own ROI business case arguments for increasing WFH innovation. Provide compelling arguments that make everyone aware of why an innovation focus is necessary and the consequences of not doing it. Especially during these highly turbulent times, making a dramatic pivot and then quickly innovating may be the #1 most impactful corporate strategic action. You might also increase their focus on innovation by revealing that firms like Google have found that innovators produce up to 300 times the value of an average employee in the same job.
- Make it everyone’s goal to innovate and support innovation. Goal setting is a critical element of success in any area. So, increasing the volume and the speed of innovation in our volatile environment needs to be a strategic corporate goal. And in order to get everyone fully committed, every team’s and employee’s individual goals and performance metrics must cover increasing innovation and supporting others innovation efforts. To iterate, it needs to be everyone’s goal to drive innovation. “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” You will make it more likely that the goals will be reached if you tie rewards to these goals. It’s important that all innovations are widely celebrated and those individual innovators are recognized by senior executives.
- Understanding the drivers of innovation. Education also plays a key role. Each manager for example needs to be fully educated about the overall innovation process and specifically the factors that increase innovation among remote workers. The problems managers are used to facing including customer needs, volatile markets, uncertain outcomes, and workarounds are the primary sources of innovation. Managers need to be made aware of the important contributions of two innovations that are provided by learning, collaboration, fun, serendipitous meetings, and tolerating risk-taking. For example, Jeff Bezos emphasized the importance of risk-taking when he said, “To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Failure and invention are inseparable twins.” Google identified another contributing factor to innovation when it found that enhancing a worker’s internal network can dramatically increase productivity, sharing, and collaboration. Because remote workers have no face to face way to build their network, they need direct help from their teammates to accelerate the rapid growth of their internal network. In addition, remote workers should be made aware of design thinking and cross-functional/cross-industry pollination, because both may increase the generation of ideas. Learning is another key contributor to innovation and collaboration. Microsoft, for example, enhanced learning between its employees by using a video portal to drive shared learning, “The goals of the video are to model the shift toward creating a learning organization, to spark dialogue, and to prompt employees to talk about their learnings.”
- Increasing serendipitous meetings. Even though chance serendipitous meetings are critical for collaboration, these random meetings can seldom be experienced by remote workers. However, Zapier has proactively addressed this difficult remote work issue by increasing the number of serendipitous meetings between paired remote employees. They schedule random serendipitous employee meetings using a Slack app called Donut. These buddy chats help to break down barriers between individuals who work in different departments. These random meetings are also important for innovation because these conversations can spark new products and services.
- Making the problems, opportunities, and ideas more visible drives innovation. Because necessity is the mother of invention, management must develop a formal process for proactively making every employee fully aware of the major issues and opportunities that the organization is facing. Employees can use this information to determine in which areas they should focus their innovative efforts. Having the needs provided upfront may be especially important for remote workers, who don’t have the same informal discovery channels as in-office workers for identifying important upcoming issues. Firms like Google provide an “open marketplace of ideas.” This internal portal where problems and potential solutions can be openly shared and discussed electronically from anywhere. Rite-Solutions idea market is set up so “anyone can post an idea and list it as a ‘stock’ on the market, called ‘Mutual Fun.’ Every employee is also given $10,000 in virtual currency to ‘invest’ in any of the posted ideas. In its first year alone, the Mutual Fun accounted for 50 percent of the company’s new business growth.”
- Provide more time to think and reflect. The best firms provide some degree of freedom, while they proactively encourage employees to find sufficient time to think about innovations. For example, Google offers 20% time and Facebook has “no meeting day.” Unfortunately, for remote workers, the many distractions associated with working at home may mean that, without encouragement, they may not find enough time to reflect. So their manager should make them aware and empower them to use physical places to think that others have found to be effective including satellite offices, co-working spaces, and other tranquil outdoor spaces that are free of disruptions. Managers might also suggest relaxing music, yoga, or mindfulness for testing. Remote worker innovation can also be dramatically increased simply by encouraging everyone to find “their primary ideal time block during the day” when they generate the most ideas. Provide them with enough flexibility and freedom so that they can set aside that time period to focus on new ideas and problem prevention actions.
- Provide mechanisms for openly sharing employee interests. Employees on a team are more likely to collaborate with those that share common interests. Unfortunately, with remote work, it’s hard for widely spread out teammates to fully understand the interest and focus areas of every team member. Begin by making the LinkedIn profiles of teammates readily available to all on the team. A proactive effort to increase employee transparency may be necessary. So, require every team member to create and periodically update his or her “What I’m working on” profile. Which highlights their current work, their current and emerging business and personal interests, their hobbies, and any personal information that they may be willing to share in order to build closer teammate bonds.
- Speed up your time to innovation. In our fast-moving world, there are often “first-mover advantages.” Speeding up innovation becomes critical. Unfortunately, working on an innovation project is often limited to the eight hours in a normal workday. When your team has workers remotely located around the world, it can speed up both the innovation and the execution process by utilizing “global time zone handoffs.” These handoffs are at the end of the normal workday, an important project is literally handed off to teammates that work in another subsequent time zone. And at the end of the next eight work hours, the project work is once again passed on. These handoffs effectively reduce project completion time by two thirds. Having globally located remote workers can also help to even out sudden work overflows.
- Increasing communications is critical. Remote workers are less likely to be innovative if they feel isolated. Everyone should recognize that increasing communications and the speed of teammate responses are both critical. Start off by realizing that periodic meetings are critical for remote workers. IBM for example found that at least three virtual team meetings each week are necessary. And Gallup found that when remote workers have feedback conversations with their managers on at least a weekly basis, they are 3x times more likely to be motivated to do outstanding work. Another company, Humu, communicates with its employees using a formalized nudge process. Which sends specific personalized messages (subtle nudges) to gently push every employee. “Employees say nudges help them build better habits, work smarter, and connect with their colleagues. That’s why people who receive nudges are 2.4x more likely to take action than their peers, and 8% less likely to leave their company.” Microsoft uses the social media channel Yammer because it allows executives to engage with employees, and to listen and learn what’s on their minds. “On a “their CEO Connection” page, employees can pose questions and connect with other employees on a gamut of topics — everything from product strategy to employee benefits. This helps to bolster a sense of community and creates a direct connection between employees and leadership.” Microsoft also adds another approach, every month, which is a virtual town hall meeting where company priorities, progress, and culture are discussed in an open forum. This meeting is broadcast live for employees around the globe and is also available on-demand for employees in other time zones.” On a more granular level, Microsoft also gathers data using a daily pulse survey. “Driven by the HR division, The Daily Pulse takes a snapshot of how employees are feeling about the company, its culture, and other timely topics.”
- A focus on execution and eliminating roadblocks to implementation. Ideas are not enough because “innovation is a team sport.” And an idea cannot have an economic impact until it is fully implemented. Therefore, managers and innovation specialists need to systematically analyze all major innovation successes and failures to identify and then eliminate common barriers to implementing innovations. Minimizing these barriers and taking actions that improve implementations are especially important for remote workers. Because they are isolated from corporate, remote workers are less likely to be aware of these barriers. It also makes sense to encourage individual employees to periodically schedule “Help me get around my roadblocks” meetings. These meetings invite teammates to help them get around an idea or implementation barrier.
- Understand how diversity increases innovation. Most organizations already have a formal diversity effort. However, it is not often fully resourced or data-driven. We have found that diversity receives an increased focus once executives realize the impact that it can have on innovation. There are several studies that show its business impact but one North Carolina State study actually showed a causal effect between workforce diversity and increasing innovation.
- Prioritize innovators during recruiting and retention. With access to the right tools, managers can proactively increase the innovation rate of almost every current employee. However, it also makes sense to focus on the attraction (and retention) of those that already have a proven track record of innovation during remote work. We have written extensively on how to find, hire, and retain innovators where referrals from your own innovators and boomerang rehires are among the most effective recruiting tools. You should also target the hiring and the retention of employees that routinely assume obsolescence because such a mindset forces the early identification of areas that will soon require innovation. Incidentally, when you’re looking for innovators, don’t bypass candidates simply because they are not ranked as top performers. And when you’re sourcing candidates, realize that few innovators actually title themselves innovators in their resume or profiles.
- Make everyone aware of how technology can facilitate remote worker innovation. The communications, isolation and the slow response issues faced by remote workers are well known. Fortunately, new technology advances in communications, team collaboration, live video meetings, and project management are already helping to reduce many historical remote work issues. For example, these new, transparent technology tools can help employees to learn when they observe co-workers solving problems similar to what employees would share through a coffee run or e-mail. Because the communication was transparent, other workers were able to learn how to solve the problem too. “Remote whiteboards” can be used to work out kinks in an innovation idea or implementation plan in real-time. Zapier uses a shared social calendar that allows anyone to attend remote social activities. At Maven Wave, they also schedule morning coffee meetings, lunches and happy hours to further enhance remote collaboration. Several firms, including Grinnel Computers, enhance collaboration and teamwork among remote workers by playing video games together every Friday afternoon. Even Hackathons can be adapted so that remote workers can play a vital role in them.
- Utilize improvement metrics to continually increase remote worker innovation. Even after an initial success, it’s important to continue monitoring both the volume and the quality of WFH innovation. Look for pockets of success and failure in order to determine the underlying causes. Also periodically conduct anonymous and partially anonymous surveys (where you can identify the team but not the individual) in order to identify potential innovation issues and solutions. Also, continually benchmark in order to identify the best remote work practices and tools in your own and parallel industries.
By all accounts, the recent “forced experiment” where almost every professional was required to work from home was wildly successful. And because we are predicting that the problems associated with operating a virus-free office environment are so difficult to overcome. No one should be surprised when soon over 50% of all professional jobs will be done remotely. And unless a strategic plan is developed. You can also expect corporate innovation at these firms to decrease by as much as 20%. Simply because no one in HR found the time to come up with a data-driven approach to increase innovation among work-at-home employees.
Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and subscribe to his weekly Talent Newsletter.