Workplace Serendipity vs. Home Comforts: What Drives Innovation?
There's no debate: hybrid and remote working practices are here to stay. Accenture's 2021 Future of Work Study found that that 83% of employees prefer the hybrid work model.
Yet, some businesses remain reluctant to the idea, fearing the absence of in-person interactions may negatively affect innovation and the free flow of ideas. In a 2022 survey, Achurch Consulting found that 69% of CEOs worried remote work resulted in a lack of spontaneous interactions, which in their mind inevitably leads to a reduction in innovation.
Spontaneous interactions are those moments during the typical office day when co-workers bump into each other and discuss various matters. Think about the so-called watercooler conversations or office pop-ins, for instance. Some managers believe these informal meetings further drive innovation and that without them, company performance suffers.
The reverse side of the argument is that employees enjoy a certain level of comfort working from home and that this flexibility allows them to think more clearly, to feel more driven to perform when they sit at the computer instead of being forced to be creative at specific hours of the day.
So, which is true? Are hybrid and remote work models stifling innovation — or are they driving it?
How Important Is Innovation to Business Success?
In a piece for Harvard Business School Online, contributing writer Michael Boyles discusses the benefits of innovation for business, which he groups across three areas:
- Adaptability — With continued disruption around the world, in business and in life in general, innovation enables businesses to find and seize opportunities at pivotal moments, and to adapt to changing conditions.
- Growth — Many businesses have failed because they've lacked the will, determination or ability to change. As they've stagnated, others around them have used innovation to grab bigger shares of the market, or new markets altogether.
- Differentiator — What makes a customer pick a brand over another? While the jury's still out on this one, we know that standing out from the crowd helps. Innovation helps brands become more unique and set themselves apart.
Innovation has always been a critical component to corporate sustainability, and most companies have seen it happen in the same manner over time. Typically, through brainstorming sessions — impromptu or not.
But shouldn't the very definition of innovation guide leaders into new territories, into new ways of doing things, including innovation itself? Is innovation only made possible when in the office?
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Innovation in a Remote Workplace
There are many ways to achieve the same level of innovation — and perhaps more — in a remote or hybrid workplace. Of course, having the right tools and technology is the first step, but setting the right tone and culture is also crucial. Here's what some leaders had to say about innovating in a hybrid world.
Open Communication Is Vital
Chandler Rogers, founder and CEO of Salt Lake City, Utah-based Relay, said the move to a remote environment during the COVID-19 pandemic has led many companies to see how they could still innovate despite the physical distance.
Part of the process, Rogers said, entails having open communication across team members, which many innovative technologies, such as digital whiteboards and team collaboration software tools, can provide.
But equally important is having leaders that understand the importance of encouraging employees to communicate — and to communicate often. Remote employees can communicate through web chat and message boards, as we've come to do, but they can also just pick up the phone and talk to each other.
Physical distance today, in the midst of technological advances, is no excuse why employees can't share ideas at any time during the workday and drive innovation. Failure to do so may be a reflection on leadership and a culture that has not set the right priorities for the team.
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Well-being Fosters Creativity and Productivity
For Robert Graham, CEO of San Francisco-based Poll Everywhere, remote work may actually help fuel greater innovation. "The best ideas for business advancement are made collaborative from home," he said.
Graham sees a lot of positives from a work-from-home model, with social, mental and physical well-being driving the trend. In his view, the debate should be reversed: in-office workers, those at companies where a presence on site is required, might be held back, he said, and remote and hybrid workers have the advantage.
His argument is that enabling employees to do their best work from the place where they do it best is what drives a healthy workplace where employees feel respected and trusted. In addition, for many employees, their home environment can improve productivity and creativity, freeing them from other concerns such as long commutes and daycare responsibilities.
This all allows for a more balanced lifestyle that is rooted in bringing your best self to work, wherever and whenever work may be.
Structure Is Key
Of course, not everyone agrees that innovation is universally possible at home. "I believe that the best ideas are made in the workplace," said Edward Solicito, CEO of Manila, Philippines-based To The Top Agency.
His opinion is based on structure. He believes that the office provides employees with a more structured environment where everyone is working on the same projects or toward the same goal. This, he said, helps drive new ideas and allows for easier implementation.
That doesn't mean Solicito doesn't see benefits to hybrid work. Working from home can be a more relaxed setting where distractions are minimized, he said, and some employees might find their minds freer to generate new ideas.
To achieve innovation in that environment, however, he suggests adding structure to the workspace, ensuring it is conducive to business. Other suggestions he makes include regular exercise, breaks away from the working environment and stimulating the mind with puzzles, music and other activities.
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