Rethink Returning To The Office – Instead, Increase Remote Worker Innovation

Remote workers haven’t been as innovative… that’s a problem because new pandemic challenges demand it.

Most executives don’t realize that there is only one primary justifiable business reason for purposely maintaining a 100% on-site workforce. And that is a laser focus on their need for continuous industry-leading innovation. But, unfortunately, that goal has generally only applied to some smaller startups and well-known major “innovator firms” like Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, IBM, and Salesforce. In contrast, it has been true that historically a hybrid or mixed workforce model (a mix of on-site and remote) that encourages a larger percentage of remote work has been best suited for all other firms that don’t live or die by innovation. 

However, because of the recent pandemic’s dramatic, game-changing challenges, almost every firm is now facing multiple extremely complex changes. Therefore, the solutions that your employees provide to meet these changes will each have to be innovative. Meaning that they must be unique and powerful enough so that only the label of “innovative solution” will fit (Note: I define innovation as a solution that provides at least a 20% improvement in the performance of a product or a business process). 

The dramatic need to change through so much innovation would mean that today, most firms would normally be forced to change their workforce mix towards having a 100% on-site workforce. Unless… 

Their executives realize that there are already proven tools that can make remote workers equally as innovative as on-site workers (and more productive at the same time).

Part I – Why every employee must now collaborate more to increase innovation

The first step is to fully understand why each of your employees, regardless of “where they physically work,” must dramatically increase their level of collaboration and innovation.

Understand that the most powerful workforce output is innovation – all innovations are created and implemented by employees. However, most managers don’t realize that employee innovation is the single workforce output that produces the highest business value. That value of each innovative employee is often a minimum of 10X higher than the value produced by the second-ranked workforce output (a highly productive employee).

The broad breadth of the pandemic has created challenges that require innovations from every employee working in every location – because the pandemic changes have occurred in nearly every aspect of business operations, the competitive marketplace, and customer expectations. This wide breadth of challenges now requires innovative solutions from every job family, and department, as well as both of the “locations” of your workforce (in-the-office employees and remote workers). 

To increase innovation, a manager must know the factors that spur innovation – because innovation comes from employees, every manager’s job is to increase it in their team. However, before that can happen, every manager must understand the factors that impact employee innovation. For example, research by major firms (like Google) has revealed that serendipitous meetings for collaboration are the #1 innovation improvement factor. Serendipitous meetings are accidental “bump into” chance meetings, where two employees that are not on the same team have exchanged ideas face-to-face. It turns out that spending more time at the office in a face-to-face environment increases the likelihood of these serendipitous collaborative meetings. (Note: Innovation comes from “serendipitous” meetings – where two employees discuss latest projects, recent learnings, innovative ideas, and personal information. The information and idea exchanges lead to additional collaboration, leading to developing and implementing innovative ideas.

Unfortunately, the recent increase in remote workers has significantly reduced total employee collaboration – Most firms have suffered from a corresponding decrease in innovation building collaboration. Remote work is done by isolated employees. That independence normally reduces the frequency of (face-to-face or electronic) collaborative interactions with other employees outside of their team. Since collaboration is the first step in the chain leading to innovation, with fewer employees collaborating, this decreases implemented innovation. To dramatically increase collaboration among remote workers, what is needed is a tool that increases the number of collaborative meetings between remote workers.

Part II – The Features Of A “Proactive Remote Serendipitous Meeting Scheduling App”

The ideal solution to effectively increasing innovation among remote workers has the following features. 1) It proactively acts to ensure that these meetings occur. 2) It automatically creates and then schedules remote serendipitous meetings for each employee. Thus, it can be called a “proactive remote serendipitous meeting scheduling app” or just “the scheduling app.” Its primary focus is to proactively increase the number of effective collaborative meetings between “employees that should meet.” The impact of the tool increases the innovation output among your remote employees. It will also allow your organization to reduce the number of employees who must return to on-site work during the next six months. 

Six key features in the “Proactive Remote Serendipitous Meeting Scheduling app” 

  1. Every employee is made aware of the scheduling app – the ideal collaboration improvement program educates every employee about the automatic meeting scheduling process and its goals. Eventually, each employee is alerted about the date that they will actively become part of the program. Every employee must be made fully aware that they are expected to meet with different potential collaborators a certain number of times each month. The number of meetings depends on the job family and the innovation track record of the employee. 
  2. The app sends pre-education information that makes the pair aware of expectations – because there are fewer failures when the roles and expectations of the participants are spelled out. The expectation communication notice includes the program goals (increasing learning, understanding other teams, and increasing collaboration and innovation. The educational message also suggests possible specific meeting outputs, including sharing emerging problems, best practices, effective learning sources, and rough and refined innovative ideas. It also makes employees aware that it’s okay to discuss hobbies or to share family issues. The education material should also include frequently asked questions and answers about the collaboration program. Finally, it might also include making the participants aware of any emerging company problems that require innovative solutions. 
  3. The app uses data to select the most ideal collaborators to match – the app gathers data from the employee profile, their non-secure communications, and their work that is visible to other employees. Then, they use the data to identify those employees (that are not the same work team) that “should meet.” Because they have common interests, educational industries, or life backgrounds, they are likely to result in a mutually beneficial collaboration that would help the firm. Thus, the success metric is expanding every employee’s collaboration network that they rely on to generate, improve or refine their innovative ideas.
  4. When it’s time to schedule a meeting, the app electronically introduces the chosen individuals – the introduction reveals the two employees’ independent and shared interests. Then, it lightly suggests broad areas in which they might collaborate. Finally, the app educates the pair on possible meeting locations and the advantages of each (meeting on-site, meeting outside of work, meeting at industry conferences, or meeting electronically right after town halls or at the end of the workday).
  5. The ideal app has multiple ways for nudging and encouraging the scheduled meeting to occur – the app encourages the pair to self-schedule their meeting, hoping that they will naturally schedule one. If after two weeks they fail to schedule a meeting, an electronic reminder is sent. If one of the employees works in an important business growth area and after one additional week has passed without a meeting, the director of innovation or either of the relevant managers is authorized to direct the pair to meet. 
  6. The ideal app should have a feedback loop – participants can report when and if they met if they had any problems, and whether any additional collaborative meetings are likely to occur.

Other proven approaches for increasing collaboration with remote workers – many other alternative approaches have been proven to increase remote worker collaboration and innovation. Those approaches include an every Friday afternoon all-hands team video game tournament. Other firms have successfully used remote zoom team lunches, coffee talks, and happy hours (with employee invited guests). Still, others have organized town hall meetings and hackathons. I have a supporting article that covers numerous other remote innovation ideas to try.

You may be able to use an existing vendor app for many of the desirable features.

Fortunately, suppose you don’t want to develop your own scheduling app in-house. In that case, several vendors created applications that cover many of the important parts of the ideal design outlined above. Those vendors include Donut, Qube, Hallway, and Sidekick. I have previously written about how Zapier has effectively used the Donut collaboration meeting scheduling app. That schedules collaborative meetings between two random employees.

Part III – Additional Success Factors That Make Remote Serendipitous Meetings Work Better

In addition to the elements of the scheduling app outlined above, there are several additional success factors. When included, make all remote collaboration meetings even more effective. These four additional success factors include:

When every employee expects collaboration, it encourages more employees to stop and chat. To increase innovation among all employees, each employee must first understand the organization’s expectation for continuous sharing and collaboration. That shared expectation will cause more employees to stop employees they don’t know to chat with initially. In addition to merely being willing to chat, there also must be enough time to do it. So, all on-site workers must have enough free time to physically roam around the building and have at least a 10-minute chat with an unfamiliar employee that they would normally pass by. The office space arrangement for on-site workers also has a significant impact on the number of serendipitous meetings. Remote workers must also have enough free time to search employee profiles to discover those they might like to meet. And enough free time to electronically chat with the discovered contacts that have high collaboration potential. 

The pressure to look good will increase learning and idea generation between collaborative meetings. Knowing that information-sharing meetings are likely to occur, frequently puts pressure on every employee to prepare. Thus, eliminating embarrassment during future meetings when they are likely to be asked about their successes, learnings, best practices, and innovative ideas. Because most employees are highly competitive, they will likely increase the time each employee spends on learning. As well as the time they spend on thinking about and refining innovative ideas that they can discuss. 

Cross-pollination information exchange leads will improve individual and team performance. These remote collaborative meetings not only help the individuals involved improve their performance. But normally, this information is also shared with the team. So, the extent of information will also likely improve the performance of each participant’s team. 

The meetings also build trust relationships, which increase the likelihood of implementation. However, the most important and rarely recognized feature of these collaborative meetings is building a trust relationship between two employees. And with the added support, time, and resources attributed to the other employee. As a result, rough ideas will develop and be refined faster. This will eventually expand the number of colleagues of the two employees willing to commit to the agreed-upon innovative idea formally. And most importantly, that expanded support will dramatically increase the number of innovative ideas that actually get funded and implemented. 

Final Thoughts 

Despite its shortcomings in innovation, I’m a big fan of remote work. I’ve written extensively on how to increase remote work innovation. Including why there should be a permanent shift to “remote work.” And on the many problems associated with fully returning to a virus-free office environment make it a less viable option. 

In addition, research by others has revealed that “The shift to remote work has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication”(Leigh Thompson). And also, a North Carolina State study showed a causal effect between workforce diversity and increasing innovation.

Under best remote work innovation practices, IBM 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 push every employee gently. They found that employees “who receive nudges are 2.4x more likely to take action than their peers, and 8% less likely to leave their company.” 

After ten years of research, I’ve concluded that it’s premature and extremely costly to plan on returning a significant portion of your workforce to mostly on-site work. Because with a little effort and some data, most firms can maintain current levels of remote work. While simultaneously using remote collaboration tools to increase remote worker innovation up to and even past the innovation level of your on-site employees.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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