Innovation is the action an individual or organisation undertakes to bring new products, processes, and ideas to life - or to approach existing products, processes, and ideas in new ways. It is crucial for organisations to constantly innovate in order to thrive and beat the competition, but as it typically takes place within the workplace, many organisations have faced innovation challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which forced many organisations to work from home.
Prior to the pandemic, only 5.7% of UK employees worked from home, while during the height of the pandemic, 70% of the UK workforce were working remotely. Fast forward to 2022 and remote working is still prevalent. Even with the rollout of vaccinations and the number of COVID-related deaths dropping to the lowest point since the start of the pandemic, many employees are still working from home and say they would like to continue too.
Multiple surveys have shown that 25% to 35% of workers want to continue to work completely remotely, and 85% of remote employees in the UK hope to have some sort of a hybrid approach to their employment in the future, involving a mix of working from home and from the office. Given this, many employers are acknowledging the requirements of their workforce with 50 of the biggest UK employers stating they have no plans to return all staff to the office full-time in the near future.
"The question facing companies today is not whether innovation is better done in-person or via remote teams. The real question now is how can leaders organize remote teams to be innovative. Almost every innovation project leader is likely to have to innovate with team members working remotely. In that sense, most teams today are virtual teams."
Ravi Gajendran, associate Professor of Global Leadership and Management at Florida International University.
It's clear that remote working is going to be more than a temporary trend, but what effect does this have on how successfully organisations are continuing to innovate? Internal innovation can become harder to foster when the majority of the workforce is at home. While many employees find home-working to be more productive, in some cases, it can be harder to innovate.
Over the last two years, as workforces have been distributed, the spirit of creativity has declined. This decline might be linked to the distance many employees feel from their colleagues or a loss of purpose which is mostly generated at work by strong and cohesive connections and witnessing how their work efforts affect others. Both of these are easier to achieve when individuals work together in the same office but difficult to do when people work remotely.
So, what is the solution?
Communication and an Innovative Culture are Key
Communication and leadership are critical elements of remote work innovation. While many leaders are aware of the importance of an innovative culture within the workplace, ensuring these efforts are reflected remotely is just as, if not more, important.
When it comes to leadership roles, many executives say they have been unprepared to manage big groups of remote workers with 61% of managers surveyed claiming they still haven't learned how to delegate and empower virtual teams successfully. The research also states that encouraging innovation is more difficult than assuring productivity.
Remote working can be significantly harder not only for leaders to manage teams but also for employees to feel like they are seen, heard and still part of a team. In fact, 42% of workers who plan to leave their current job would grade their employer’s efforts to maintain culture during the pandemic as a “C” or lower. And when it comes to sharing their ideas, many junior to mid-level employees feel worried or anxious about what their peers will think - despite being encouraged to think outside the box.
A great leader is one that is able to foster member inclusion in remote teams through personalised leadership by reaching out to each member individually - not just on group zoom calls or team meetings. This frequent personal connection is crucial because it encourages and supports the employee, making them feel like their ideas are valid and worth sharing.
In order to successfully foster a culture of innovation remotely, new tools and ways of communicating are required. But while implementing key tools for employees to carry out their roles at home was a priority early on in the pandemic, many organisations have not given the same level of priority to ensure their innovation systems and processes are in place.
Many leaders are still pursuing old ways of managing their workforce when it comes to idea generation and many tried to simply adapt their in-person techniques by holding team brainstorming sessions online. However, this approach is rarely effective and in some cases can even be counterintuitive. This is because remote teams are less engaged and do not benefit from the energising presence of having their peers in the room. And for introverted employees, the prospect of sharing ideas over a group video call can feel daunting.
Implementing the right technology can open the doors of creativity by making it easy for the workforce to log their ideas regardless of whether they are remote, hybrid or office-based. A shared online collaborative tool can be used by the whole workforce allowing introverted employees to log their ideas in a way that feels comfortable to them while extrovert team members can engage and collaborate with others. These ideas can then be discussed further in future meetings to establish which ones should be implemented.
Additionally, behavioural psychology research has established that digital brainstorming is superior to in-person brainstorming. In fact, the larger the in-person group, the fewer ideas each person has. Digital idea generation also reduces creativity blocks as employees can log their ideas when they naturally come to mind - rather than within the forced environment of team sessions.
Put simply, remote innovation challenges can be overcome by creating a strong creative culture and replacing traditional in-person methods with the right technology. Organisations that fail to strategically adapt to new circumstances can threaten their capacity to thrive in the future and run the risk of losing key employees.
The SimplyDo platform allows you to capture and prioritise ideas from inside and outside your organisation. Whether users want to simply submit their own ideas or collaborate as part of a team, the platform can be used on any device and makes complex idea management within large organisations simple.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can improve innovation in your organisation, find out more about the SimplyDo platform, here.