As CBS News put it in a recent report, COVID-19 may have ended the stigma around people working from home. For many companies across the US, productivity has not slowed. Although employees and managers still don’t have answers to what the future holds in terms of economic repositioning and upcoming challenges, one attractive option for cost savings as each company works to recover profits might be getting rid of unnecessary office space. Remote work might be here to stay. On the other hand, a company’s success is not just about remaining productive, it’s about thinking ahead. As focused on surviving as teams are right now, they still have to acknowledge and anticipate the changing needs of their marketplace, beyond the ones brought on by COVID-19. Ideas and solutions grow stale over time and need to be replenished with new ones.
How will the next wave of innovation take root if remote work becomes more prevalent? After all, the best ideas are formed out of collaborative sharing and regular observation which can occur organically in a physical office setting but may be hard to recreate in telecommuting teams.
Here are three guidelines to ensure innovation stays strong across onsite and remote teams.
Foster an Innovative Culture
Innovative companies have cultural attributes that encourage progressive output across the workforce. At the core is a strong focus on building trust as the foundation for working relationships. People need to feel like they can safely share their ideas and perspectives, no matter how unique they might be. Another key to creating an innovative culture is a tendency to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. Employees in innovative companies aren’t threatened with impending punishment if they make a mistake. Of course, there’s a difference between habitual and careless missteps and an employee taking a calculated risk toward an improved process and failing to succeed. Innovative companies tend to encourage the latter. Another critical component to creating an innovative culture is the sharing of information. One of the most impactful ways that this can be done is in cross-departmental education. When team members are expected to gain an understanding of how the other departments gauge and achieve success, they gain a more complete understanding of the way the company operates as a whole. It’s much easier to spot areas in need of better solutions with a clear and broad perspective.
Employees of innovative companies get regular insights from upper management about where to focus their innovative thinking. What may be obvious to you is not always as clear to your team. Make sure they understand what you are looking for. Employees not only need to know what types of innovation the company is targeting, but also why these specific areas rank higher than others in terms of priority. Employees also need to know how high of a focus innovation should be for them and their team at various stages within the company’s overall strategy. So, innovation should be a subject that makes the agenda during company-wide, all hands style meetings so everyone can stay current on expectations in this area. Putting hard numbers to your innovation goals can help them to materialize when they’re needed the most. For example, let employees know how many innovations you’d like to see in each area by the next quarter. If you set clear goals around innovation and communicate clearly about each employee’s contribution, you may be shocked at what your team brings to the table.
Sometimes innovation can get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day business. It’s easy for seemingly urgent matters to take most of the time and attention. Employees can end up spending all their time putting out fires, achieving their monthly quota, or simply maintaining the current level of productivity to their best abilities. Innovation sounds fun and exciting, but many employees view their role in any sort of inventiveness as unrealistic when the rubber meets the road. That’s why managers and leaders that want this type of input from their teams have to campaign for it on a regular basis. Beyond meetings, innovative values should come up as a reminder through email signatures, awards and recognition, and any other creative way you can think of to keep innovation top of mind for everybody, remote and not. Some companies have “thinking rooms” with comfortable chairs and notepads for people to use while they focus on a particular solution. You can encourage your remote workers to make a designated place in their home to think and focus intensely. Or perhaps encourage them to take a “thinking walk” once in a while to massage the creative juices. These are a few examples, and I’m sure your team can help you come up with more.
Just as the COVID-19 work-from-home experience revealed that office space isn’t essential for maintaining productivity, it’s also not a requirement for innovation to take place. Innovation values can thrive in both physical and virtual environments. But within the virtual environment, leaders may need to be more intentional about driving an innovative culture, especially in companies that have just started embracing work from home dynamics. Increased discussion about the company’s commitment to innovation, and how each employee can contribute to that mission, may help to remind remote team members how important their ideas are and give some more reserved team members the courage to share more often.