Does remote working encourage innovation? Do teams that have a hybrid approach tackle challenges effectively? Should we return to the office?
There are a lot of discussions surrounding the efficiency of remote, hybrid or office-based teams.
In this article, David Hardman, Chairman and Director of Digital Innovators West Midlands Community Interest Company, shares his thoughts on the topic, focusing on how we can facilitate collaboration to encourage innovation.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought forward changes to the ways and where we work. The pros and cons of these changes, however, continue to be a topic of debate.
The impact on productivity and employee well-being have become key discussion points in employment negotiations. However, the hybrid models of in-person, office working and remote working do reduce location-based experiential learning whereby new, younger members of staff, adsorb information from more experienced colleagues.
It impacts the feeling of belonging as an esprits de corps (a feeling of pride and mutual loyalty shared by members of a group) is significantly more difficult to achieve via computer screens.
Since the pandemic, many major tech companies have called their staff back to in-person working for differing portions of the week. Amazon recently did so to address these concerns noting that ‘collaborating and inventing is easier and more effective when we are in person’.
Contact is a key catalyst of innovation. Innovation thrives where serendipity can intervene, something much less readily achieved online, when meetings are arranged with a defined set of individuals and a time-limited agenda.
Virtual meetings do not readily promote side discussions or continued debate as people walk out of face-to-face meetings. Remote working reduces those chance meetings at the coffee shop or in the corridor that can spark discussions of possibilities, drawn from experiences across the business.
Similarly, if working too remotely, it is possible that employees become less engaged with a business’ needs and aren’t exposed to the challenges facing their innovative practice. As a result, they become less able to participate in collaborative thought processes and I believe that the innovation output, especially the rate of step-jump inventions, will fall.
A recent study by researchers at Brandeis University based around three million U.S. patents filed between 1976 and 2017 points to another key stimulus for innovation.
The study indicates that the very nature of the invention is at least in part determined by the age of the inventor. It suggests that there is a tendency for older inventors to exploit their knowledge and experience to build on novel applications to develop new patented concepts.
Such an approach leads to valuable but iterative product development. In contrast, younger inventors, less encumbered by legacy, are more likely to submit patents that rely on novel problem-solving that yields more disruptive, step-jump developments of products and services.
In view of all these factors, effective integration of new young recruits into a collaborative culture is likely to drive the innovation and digital transformation needed in a business. The catalytic effect of their presence is best promoted by bringing together a diverse group of individuals, who differ in age, neuro-diversity, ethnicity and experience.
Armed with this information and from Digital Innovators‘ experience of working with a highly diverse set of 16–24-year-olds, it is apparent that employers looking to drive their businesses forward should consider carefully how they diversify their workforce.
They should look to bring on digitally innate younger staff from non-traditional backgrounds, not clones of their existing workforce. These young people have the strength of having unfettered thinking, the type of thinking needed to drive business transformation.
In order to maximise the potential of this talent, businesses need to consider the support required to onboard new staff, which will involve much more face-to-face engagement.
They enter the business as raw talent in need of nurturing. If handled correctly, this will lead to loyalty – something that is true for all staff – but especially those given a chance at such an early stage in their careers, based upon their ability to succeed and not upon their background.
At a time when recruitment is a challenge in many sectors, this source of talent should not be overlooked – not least because our experience at Digital Innovators shows that given the right support and encouragement, the presence of these young people in businesses promotes and enables innovation and digital transformation.
Hybrid working definitely has its place in the modern work environment. However, the advantages it offers must not be at the expense of personal development or product and process innovation. The neglect of which would leave businesses less competitive and falling behind in an increasingly digital world.
Dr David Hardman MBE is Chairman and Director of Digital Innovators West Midlands Community Interest Company.
His focus over the last twenty-five years has been in knowledge transfer with his expertise and experience directed towards creating appropriate partnerships and infrastructures to promote the development and success of cross sectorial knowledge-based businesses.