These days, few people argue over our ability to be productive in a remote working environment. Perhaps surprisingly, organizations have maintained – or even improved – productivity while working remotely. Innovation however, is a whole different discussion.
One article from McKinsey, highlighting the increase in the number of new patents issued and the amount of venture capital invested, makes a compelling argument that innovation has also increased since the beginning of the pandemic. The latter rose 111% in 2021 from 2020. While another study published in Nature, found that Zoom is a creativity killer, suggesting that video calls reduce creative collaboration and the generation of novel ideas.
In our recently published article, in Management Business Review, we take a step back and look at the concept of innovation more broadly to evaluate innovation in a remote environment. Traditional research has suggested that proximity matters for innovation; specifically, in-person interactions are critical to innovation. These in-person connections increase the flow of novel ideas, especially across teams.
However, what if both arguments are true? What if we can increase innovation while working remotely and at the same time, innovation requires face-to-face interactions? This is a question we set out to examine in our article. Our research incorporates the findings from multiple companies that are part of the Connected Commons research consortium.
The findings suggest that since working remotely, teams have become more insular and disconnected from other teams, limiting our ability to generate novel ideas and scale new solutions. Yet, our ability to incubate and build these ideas may have actually improved, at least initially.
Understanding Innovation Stages
We argue that innovation projects go through three distinct stages: idea generation, idea incubation, and organizational scaling. Each stage requires different disciplines and connections. First, there must be a process to generate novel ideas. Second, there needs to be a way to incubate an idea, to validate it with users, and to discover how to make it add business value. Finally, there must be a way to get the assets and capabilities needed to scale the idea into a business that meets market demand.
We found that during the pandemic, one company from the study experienced a statistically significant drop in the time employees spent generating and scaling new ideas when working remotely. Employees perceived they spent 24% less time on idea generation and 11% less time on scaling these ideas compared to pre-pandemic work. This pattern was reinforced in another company that discovered the single largest behavioral shift when working remotely was a decline in employee curiosity.
When it comes to idea incubation, there was at least some anecdotal evidence that employees were able to focus in on building out new solutions in the early days of the pandemic. However, as the pandemic continued, increased workloads, employee churn, and burnout started to kick in. One company found that it was 15% more difficult to incubate new ideas 15 months into the pandemic. This same company saw a modest increase in incubation in the early days.
Each innovation stage depends on different types of social connections to succeed. As I have shared before, bonding connections facilitate in-group interactions that enable a team to move fast by embracing new ideas, experimenting with new solutions, and building products with trusted peers. It can act like a superglue in holding a group together. In contrast, bridging connections reflect the interactions across groups and facilitate innovations by generating novel ideas or scaling solutions. When balanced, these two types of connections facilitate innovation activity across all three stages.
Bridging interactions are critical to the ideation stage of innovation. These connections provide access to novel ideas, new insights, and unique information; they enhance discovery. Employees connected to other groups are exposed to diverse perspectives, increasing their ability to generate novel ideas. Bonding interactions forges cohesive teams to facilitate the incubation stage around a given idea. These connections represent many redundant connections within a given team, typically reflecting deep trusting relationships. With trust, individuals openly experiment, build out, and refine ideas.
Finally, scaling a minimal viable product across an organization for maximal impact involves both resource acquisition and execution. Bridging connections play a critical role in gaining formal support and resources for newly crafted ideas from key stakeholders and leaders. Bridge connections help unleash the resources necessary to generate excitement and to facilitate idea diffusion.
How does remote work effect innovation? The network on the left side of Figure 1. below is theoretically well positioned to innovate across all three stages. The colored clusters of nodes (purple, orange, green, etc.) reflect high levels of bonding connections that help with incubation. While the connections across these groups provide linkages across teams that are necessary for both ideation and scaling stage of innovation. The right side of figure 1 more accurately reflects what we have experienced in a remote working environment. It represents both fewer bridging and bonding connections. Over all, there is a 36% erosion in connections. This erosion is most evident in the reduction of bridging connections, making it much more challenging for people to generate novel ideas and then ultimately scale them.
Figure 1. Network Shift in Remote Environment
Network erosion has resulted in a disproportionate impact on the various innovation stages. One of the reasons we are continuing to debate our ability to innovate remotely is because of how we are evaluating it. For example, reviewing the number of new patents issued, or the amount of venture capital invested strongly reflects idea incubation, not idea generation.
These indicators generally reflect ideas that have been strongly vetted and developed out. Incubation relies on strong bonding connections. Which initially improved or at least held steady with remote work. It is likely that the ideas needed to issue patents and invest capital had already been generated prior to the pandemic. As a result, even with demonstrated improvement, these indicators don’t illustrate our ability to traverse the entire innovation process in a remote environment across the longer-term.
Equally so, creativity is mostly associated with the idea generation stage of innovation, which is highly dependent on bridging connections. This is a major way we gain access to novel ideas. As a result, the Zoom study is an incomplete reflection of our ability to be creative in a remote environment because it doesn’t control for the different perspectives that the people interacting on video bring into the conversation. For example, if these two people represented a bridging connection, they would be more likely to generate a novel idea.
On the other hand, if they know each other well, they would be more capable of developing out a given idea. In fact, the very same study that asserts Zoom as a creativity killer, also suggests that video interactions can actually elevate our ability to more precisely evaluate good ideas over bad ideas. Suggesting that video interactions could actually improve idea incubation.
Intentional Hybrid Innovation
In short, certain aspects of innovation, most notably incubation, could improve in a remote environment. While the others, ideation and solution scaling, would more likely deteriorate over time in a remote environment because they rely on bridging connections. In reality, only time can tell if we are truly able to find ways to innovate across all stages remotely. However, the good news is we are now working in a more hybrid context and we have learned enough to be far more intentional about how to balance in-person interactions with remote work.
In the article we share a preliminary framework and a number of potential interventions to facilitate our thinking. However, in short, we have three primary recommendations.
Understand your stage of innovation – It all begins with getting super intentional about what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to generate novel ideas, or are you trying to build out existing ideas. The former requires interactions with people across your organization. While the later can be done quite well within your existing team.
Find your bridges – If your intention is generating novel ideas, or scaling new solutions you need to either leverage existing bridge connections or build new ones. In the latter case, we know that this is easier to do in-person, so it likely means you need to get back into the office periodically. If you already have bridge connections, this could be as easy as reaching out from time to time with your more distant colleagues and virtually brainstorming.
Build team bonding – If your intention is building new solutions, group cohesion is critical to both trust and speed. This is something that needs to be cultivated across time. As team members come and go, group cohesion begins to shift. As a result, from time to time, it is important to gather in-person. We are far more proficient at building trust quickly with in-person interactions than we are remotely.