Business leaders recognize the importance of innovation for the long-term success of organizations. In a study by Accenture, 84% of executives believe innovation is key to long-term organizational success. But knowing that innovation is important and making it happen are two different things. Especially in a remote or telecommuting environment!
When working from home, there are multiple barriers on how to lead an innovative remote team. People tend to communicate less frequently, collaboration is more complex, and it isn’t easy to maintain a strong sense of connection to others. Companies that take innovation seriously know that connecting people to one another is essential. In fact, some of the most innovative companies in the world boast open office plans that are intentionally designed for constant interaction and ‘collisions’ among employees.
Micro-interactions can fuel a culture that’s vital for the innovation process to exist, as noted by David Shrier, programme director at Oxford Cyber Futures. Remote work poses a direct threat to innovation in this way: people are far less likely to communicate and connect, and spontaneous interactions don’t happen organically.
To sustain innovation in a remote environment, leaders must find ways to keep their teams connected. It takes more than emails and slack channels to keep people connected in meaningful ways that spark creativity and foster innovation. Consider the following tips for managing a remote team:
- Collaborate face-to-face virtually
- Create an environment for spontaneity
- Build a diverse team
- Encourage play at work
- Face challenges creatively
1. Collaborate with Video
A new study by IZA Institute of Labor Economics found that creative performance significantly decreased when remote team members communicated solely via chat rather than face-to-face. However, this effect did not exist for those who also communicated regularly using video. In fact, the participants in the video chat condition performed just as well as those working together in the same room. This finding suggests that for remote teams, video chatting is essential if they want to remain innovative.
At Ziksana, we schedule collaborative work hours twice per week on Zoom. During these hours, our team members can work together face-to-face. These opportunities help us stay connected and express thoughts, ideas about work, and questions. It fosters an environment that allows our remote team to share personal stories that make us laugh and play alongside work conversations.
2. Create Spontaneous Interactions
When working from home, most face-to-face interactions occur during Zoom meetings with set agendas. These meetings leave little room for spontaneous conversations or relaxed time chatting with colleagues. When it comes to innovative potential, this concerns Stanford economist Nicholos Bloom. “When you examine businesses or scientists or even the way I do my own research,” he said, “a lot of that creativity comes from idle time and relaxed discussion with colleagues, and that’s all gone.” While open office plans sometimes take this concept over the top, it is essential for remote teams to virtually replicate the casual interactions in the usual found in the office. Here are several ways to do that:
- Have virtual coffee together in the mornings. Spend time casually chatting and catching up before diving into work.
- Challenge everyone to call two people per week that they typically run into at the office for casual ‘how-are-you doing’ or ‘checking in’ conversations.
- Create channels for communicating about non-work related topics. If your team uses Slack, encourage people to create channels to discuss their favorite TV shows or sports teams.
3. Hire for Diversity
One of the major benefits of remote companies is that it removes geographical barriers. This allows companies to hire people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences. Diverse contributors understand the unmet needs in under-leveraged markets, giving organizations the unique ability to tap into them. One study found that firms with greater diversity were 70% more likely to report that they captured a new market. Hire people who share company values but have different backgrounds and experiences to promote diversity of thought and encourage innovation.
4. Encourage Play
To have an innovative team, you need creative thinkers — people who think outside-the-box and are willing to experiment with new ideas. Innovation requires risk. It requires trial-and-error. And play gets people in the right mindset for innovation. In a remote environment, people have more flexibility and freedom. They can choose their work environment and create their schedule in a way that (hopefully!) maximizes their ability to be productive AND play. Encourage remote workers to learn their play preferences and engage with them daily to manage energy and mindset. You can also capitalize on the power of play by allowing employees to spend a set percentage of time working on projects outside of their regular responsibilities that are motivating for them. Google’s policy of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time in this way led to the creation of some of their most well-known innovative products, including Gmail and Google Maps.
5. Face Challenges Creatively
Innovation often occurs when there’s a problem or challenge that can create value. While some companies buckle under the pressure of things not working, others use obstacles as opportunities to improve their processes and innovate new products. Encourage innovation on your remote team by creating space for employees to discuss challenges they are experiencing or witnessing, both on the individual and company level. Ensure that these conversations don’t become platforms for complaining by challenging your team to develop creative solutions. Hold virtual brainstorming sessions where people can openly discuss challenges and share ideas. Then, have your team put those ideas into action by setting deadlines and sharing progress regularly at meetings.
To be truly successful, a company needs to incorporate innovation into their values. Additionally, leaders must stay educated on how to manage teams in ways that support innovation. The fact that remote work poses challenges to innovation provides an ironic opportunity for leaders, teams, and organizations to truly demonstrate their capacity for innovation. Due to the disruption of the workforce’s ‘regular workday,’ there are more opportunities to improve what we work on, how we work, and who we work with. Learn more on how to support your remote team’s innovation at the ‘Thriving In Ambiguity’ live online workshop.