As Remote Work Productivity goes Up, Innovation drops Down.
The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for the workplace. For most, a decline in productivity wasn’t one of them; 39% of businesses actually reported an increase in productivity after shifting to remote work at the start of Covid-19. Unfortunately, while productivity was maintained, innovation suffered.
Remote Work: The decline of innovation
This decline in innovation is understandable. While Slack, Zoom and other online tools enabled remote teams to keep up with daily tasks and communication, the distractions of the pandemic made focus and creativity—key ingredients to innovation—much harder. As teams adjusted to remote collaboration, work notifications became incessant while concerns about illness, caring for sick family members and home-schooling children made it nearly impossible to find the mental time or space to think outside of the box. People got work done, but when productivity lacks innovation, it can look a lot like running in circles.
Adjusting to the pandemic forced us to adapt in so many ways. According to research conducted by McKinsey, three out of four executives believe changes caused by Covid-19 present opportunities for growth. As we continue to adjust and settle into a new version of normal, innovation is more important than ever.
So how do we continue to maintain productivity while harnessing those opportunities for growth? How do we encourage employees (many of whom are experiencing burnout) to think creatively and tackle complex issues? How do we inspire the energy and focus for the innovation we so badly need?
Make innovation a core value
Despite a general consensus that innovation is key to adding value to a business, staying ahead of the competition, and solving the world’s biggest problems, organizations tend to spend a very small percentage of their budgets on promoting innovation internally—just 5%, according to Harvard Business Review, while 85% goes to daily operations.
“The natural bias is to respond immediately to what is in front of you (like answering endless emails as they come in, for instance),” write Brad Power and Steve Stanton for HBR. “The problem is, this instinct crowds out longer term, innovative thinking.”
When innovation is a core value of a company, however, it gives employees permission to spend time and energy on new ideas—rather than focusing entirely on putting out the nearest fire. By centering innovation in company culture, we encourage our employees to think ahead, to take risks that lead to groundbreaking ideas.
Simply stating that a company values innovation won’t do the trick, though. It must be a visible, tangible focus.
Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott write for HBR: “An organization that wants to reinforce an agile, innovative culture, for example, might have regular events that prompt creative engagement, such as improv activities, and showcase collaboration tools that enable brainstorming and sketching.”
But of course, planting the seed of innovation as a core value should start at the beginning—when hiring. Peter Newell, CEO and founder of BMNT, explains that prioritizing innovation means prioritizing a diversity of experiences and perspectives in who will be on hand to come up with new ideas. “If I really want diversity of thought, I need people from different backgrounds, different experiences, with different opinions. Men, women, racially, socially, economically, anything you can get that creates a melting pot of thought, and can synchronize itself and make decisions.”
Eliminate distractions for more focused brainstorming and problem-solving
Once innovation is a visible, focused value of a company, there must exist the time and space to deploy innovative thinking. You might be able to fire off a Slack message and reach a coworker on the other side of the globe in seconds, but the speed of technology does little to promote creative thinking and problem-solving. If anything, it distracts from it.
We know that constant notifications and an overflowing inbox are stressful. Studies show that stress diminishes attention-span, and the ability to focus on a problem is key to innovation.
In his latest book, A World Without Email, author Cal Newport explains how the “hyperactive hive mind workflow” causes a constant switching between tasks, without ever devoting proper attention to any one. “All of that context switching back and forth significantly reduces cognitive capacity and makes it very difficult to produce value with your brain at anywhere near your capabilities,” he says in an interview with Fortune.
Managers needn’t go as far as Newport with his suggestion that we get rid of email entirely. The tools that allow for efficient, digital communication are non negotiable in most modern workplaces, especially post COVID. But we can enact policies that reduce the noise, particularly at times when innovation is being prioritized.
Rather than expecting everyone to be available on multiple channels at all times, it should be acceptable to ignore notifications in favor of focusing and brainstorming. Policies that make this not only acceptable but encouraged show employees that managers trust them to stay on top of communication when necessary—and to temporarily disconnect in favor of deep, focused thinking that’s necessary for innovative ideas to flourish.
Encourage an open and honest exchange of ideas
One silver lining to the devastation of COVID-19 is how it forced us to see each other as humans, not just coworkers. Remote work gave employees a peek inside each others’ home lives, and while this was distracting at times, it also encouraged deeper connection and empathy. In healthy work environments, people felt more comfortable being honest about the challenges of the moment, because they were impossible to ignore. Now that the crisis feels less immediate, we should keep the door to honest communication open.
The open exchange of ideas requires vulnerability and emotional honesty. In order to encourage those things, we must foster environments in which employees feel supported in not just their ideas, but their feelings, too.
Research from the University of Maryland found that employees who feel free to share their emotions with one another—both positive and negative—are more likely to innovate and come up with creative solutions to problems. Researcher Myeong-Gu says this is particularly important in the early stage of a creative process, when ideas are still intuitive and “lack clear logic and precise articulation.” At that point in the brainstorming process, we all rely more on emotion. “Thus, by encouraging free expression and exploration of their emotional reactions, team members can generate and use more and richer information for generating, exploring, evaluating and elaborating creative ideas.”
Communication is key
Open and honest communication makes it acceptable to be wrong, to fail, to be messy in the early stages of new ideas that might lead to ground-breaking innovation.
Don Mroz, provost and dean of the School of The Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University, has witnessed the benefits of building people up rather than criticizing failure. “People here have blossomed when given this freedom—and they’ve landed on some of the brightest solutions for problems we’re trying to solve.”
The last few years have been hard on everyone—but in so many instances, the challenges have highlighted our ability to adapt and persevere. Those traits demonstrate the ability to innovate, too. First, workers must be provided with the purpose, the focus, the time and space, and the emotional support to take risks. The road to innovation is messy and might require abandoning certain work practices and habits. But that’s exactly how we wind up somewhere entirely new, with bigger, better answers to the problems we’re trying to solve.