Innovating in a remote environment

After months of enforced working from home during lockdown, when only a quarter of UK employees want to go back to the office full time, 55 per cent report higher levels of productivity.

The finding, by identity management firm Okta, reveals a major productivity benefit of remote work, which bodes well as a future model for businesses that embrace the necessary technology and digital transformation.

But in the absence of an office-based physical workspace and the spontaneous interactions that often spark new ideas, it leaves bosses with another challenge: how to innovate at work?

Home working can recapture the time lost to commuting and its flexibility is conducive to productivity, as well as home life. However, a number of the benefits of face-to-face working are lost, particularly the creation of social ties and reciprocal trust essential to innovation.

“Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown successful innovators build a foundation of trust around micro-interactions that occur in the workplace. And the Allen Curve shows that if you don’t see someone face to face, you don’t collaborate with them,” says David Shrier, programme director at Oxford Cyber Futures.

“New technology can help bridge this gap, even to the extent of having an artificial intelligence, or AI, assistant that helps your team do a better job of working together. This technology exists, but it’s down to the willingness of organisations to implement it.”

A new report, Innovation and communication media in virtual teams: an experimental study, by the University of Cologne and Leibniz University Hannover, suggests employees working from home are unlikely to be less innovative. The report says video conferencing among team members can compensate potentially negative effects on innovation when employees work remotely from each other.

“Previous research has shown that creative performance is significantly lower when there is no face-to-face communication,” says Professor Bernd Irlenbusch, who co-led the study. “However, the current lockdown has fostered the adoption of new technologies to conduct collaborative tasks when team members work from home. Video conferencing can mitigate the gap in creative performance.”

Remote teams can be creative at work

But is it possible to replicate the creative spark and harness the collective energy that drives innovation among a remote team? To try and recreate those spontaneous exchanges, global media agency Wavemaker is looking at how to innovate at work by encouraging everyone worldwide to call five people a week who they would normally bump in to in the office.

Global head of organisational effectiveness and chartered occupational psychologist Emma Brock says: “There’s no agenda, no formal calendar invite, just a random call to say hello, see how they’re doing and see if this sparks a good idea or new opportunity.”

Nigel Davies, founder and chief executive of digital workplace Claromentis, believes the company has already solved the challenge of how to innovate at work when staff are apart.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the team of 40 worked from home or the office, as they liked. Productivity levels are maintained by replicating the innovative company culture in its digital workplace, prioritising good communication, using project management tools and encouraging online learning. Staff use their collective energy to innovate continuously, while individuals are encouraged to work on product or company innovation solutions of their own.

Changing standards

Davies says: “Three of our coders joined forces to create a more accessible build system for our codebase, and another team has been working on a new way to get relevant functionality to our customers without them having to upgrade, so we can deploy anything they need in these unusual times really quickly and simply. We’ve also developed a new process that makes it easier for smaller companies to try our software.

“How to innovate at work is to ensure innovation is truly ingrained in your culture and to remove any barriers to getting started. We have Slack channels dedicated to ideas and innovation, we encourage people to work on their own projects without asking and we publicly celebrate initiative.”

Innovative ideas that benefit business

The company hosts an annual innovation week hackathon event when everyone briefly downs tools on client work and spends time away from the office together, working in small teams to build anything they think the business would benefit from. Last year’s event saw bugs fixed and new processes written.

“There’s no reason we can’t replicate our hackathon virtually using our proprietary remote collaboration and project management tools,” says Davies. “By dedicating a week to innovation and temporarily halting client work, our employees have the time and headspace to create and build. We’ll still look to make the week as enjoyable as possible, with social events scheduled throughout the week on Zoom.”

There are digital tools and apps for stimulating creative thinking and solving problems alone, such as brainsparker, an app that generates random prompt cards to overcome mental blocks and spark fresh thinking, and Coggle, an online tool for creating mind maps and flow charts.

“Innovation can occur and prosper in solitude, just as it does in team-oriented environments,” says Dr Julia, Jones, neuroscientist and founder of The Music Diet. “It can occur during deep, focused thinking, as well as spontaneously and instinctually. So remote working is just as likely to engender forward-thinking and ‘eureka’ moments, such as those that take place around the water cooler, when someone is walking their dog and their brain is in a default and uninhibited mind-wandering mode.”

Anyone can have a good idea

Given that diversity of thought and inclusivity are the building blocks of innovation, remote working could offer greater opportunities to enhance the diversity of the workforce as companies are no longer restricted by geographical boundaries when hiring.

The move to distributed working is also providing opportunities for different people to shine, says Bev White, chief executive at Harvey Nash Group. “Whereas in traditional office working it’s usually the more extrovert and self-confident people who take the lead, the more remote working model changes that.

“Other qualities – independence, efficiency, self-organisation – become more important than before, and these attributes can provide a real boost to productivity and innovation.”