Virtual Work Actually Spurs More Innovation
Separate studies published in MIT Sloan Management Review suggest that innovation has not been impeded, and may have even boosted, by remote work
One of the big questions encountered this past year was how to keep innovation rolling when people were working entirely virtually. We took up this question on these pages after the Covid-19 crisis hit, scattering employees and executives across a corporate diaspora of home-based workplaces.
Now, two separate studies published in MIT Sloan Management Review suggest that innovation has not been impeded, and may have even boosted, by remote work.
“You might assume that major changes in how we work are taking a large toll on business creativity, in light of the loss of more spontaneous face-to-face connections and interactions,” writes Leigh Thompson, professor at Northwestern University. “Based on research I and others have conducted over the past couple of decades, I believe that the shift to remote work actually has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication.”
In a separate study published in MIT Sloan, a team led by Ben Laker, professor at the University of Reading, reports that among certain forward-looking companies, the pace of innovation actually accelerated, leading to better outcomes for employees and customers.
So, the massive move to work-from-anywhere actually paved the way to greater interaction, information-sharing and innovation. There’s a caveat that needs to be thrown in here: knowledge-sharing and collaboration between people was a disjointed, problematic process long before Covid. In a study of 200 executives I developed and authored as part of my work as an independent analyst, we found only 41% of respondents report that they have confidence that their enterprise’s documented knowledge is the most up-to-date information and a reliable, trusted source. Only 12% report they are completely confident. While a majority of respondents say employees have access to the expertise they need, the depth of such support is limited.
Long-term issues aside, it’s notable that remote, digital work didn’t necessarily have a negative effect on innovation and creativity. If anything, “constraints spark creative thinking,” Thompson points out. “Working within limits pushes us to solve problems in ways we wouldn’t if given free rein. Overall, virtual meeting platforms impose more constraints on communication and collaboration than face-to-face settings. For instance, with the press of a button, virtual meeting facilitators can control the size of breakout groups and enforce time constraints; only one person can speak intelligibly at a time; nonverbal signals, particularly those below the shoulders, are diminished; ‘seating arrangements’ are assigned by the platform, not by individuals; and visual access to others may be limited by the size of each participant’s screen. Such environmental restrictions are likely to stretch participants beyond their usual ways of thinking, boosting creativity.
Laker points to successful companies they looked at who seized the moment and have actually thrived through the crisis. Ninety-eight percent of these thriving entities “operate a platform-based business model in which users can function as buyers and sellers, readers and writers, consumers and creators — a growing behavioral trend referred to as prosumers, individuals that blur the line between production and consumption activities.” These companies embrace a philosophy of “employee and customer becoming one,” they observe.
The following are ways to bring out the spirit of innovation in remote work:
Use virtual meetings to actually amplify individual input. The common assumption is that it takes a group to innovate. However, “virtually no research supports this,” Thompson says. “In fact, most studies have found that ‘per capita’ creativity declines precipitously as group size increases. In contrast to in-person meetings, where people tend to engage in simultaneous cross talk, virtual meetings make it nearly impossible for more than one person to speak at once. We’re forced to focus on individual input, so it’s easier for less vocal participants to be heard than in the physical world, where they’re often drowned out.”
Maintain a structure. By keeping a similar schedule and meeting regularly with colleagues via a virtual schedule, 84% of leading innovators were able to preserve the rhythm of daily life that existed before Covid-19, Laker and his colleagues found. “To do this well, setting up clear systems for engagement is of paramount importance. For example, team updates are shared using asynchronous discussion boards and WhatsApp groups; check-ins occur using face-to-face Zoom or Teams meetings; and decisions are made using synchronous audio calls, not video meetings. Also, virtual lunches, during which work talk is banned, enable employees to maintain the type of casual conversation that helps build strong bonds across teams.”
Let employees own customer relationships. It doesn’t matter where someone is working for them to be able to deliver a superior customer experience. As Laker’s team found in their study, successful companies blend the experience of the employee and customer. “Entrusting employees with customer relationships significantly improves the likelihood of innovations occurring: 91% told us that they appreciate the visibility of their contributions, which in turn helps enhance their motivation and productivity, leading to further innovation.”
Foster diverse interactions. “The presence of a single newcomer can stimulate group creativity, yielding a larger number and variety of ideas,” says Thompson. “In a typical face-to-face meeting, people sit by their friends and colleagues, often engaging in sidebars or shared nonverbal interactions, which have the unintended consequence of promoting conformity and narrowing creative focus. In a virtual meeting, you can’t choose your seat, and having sidebar conversations is not nearly as tempting, given the shared screen and risk of accidentally messaging a private thought to everyone. Moreover, the group-breakout function defaults to sorting people randomly. These factors make it more likely that people in virtual settings will interact with participants they don’t know well, boosting creativity.”
Virtual engagements provide a record to build future endeavors. “Pre-Covid-19, many in-person brainstorming meetings were not recorded, erasing any trace of discarded ideas,” Thompson points out. “Luckily, chat windows, electronic whiteboards, and other virtual-collaboration tools serve as vaults and boneyards, memorializing sessions and making it easier to revisit previously overlooked ideas.”