Exploring remote working and its impact on innovation

Over the last few months, working remotely has become part of everyday life for many businesses. Although many companies are now opening their doors to staff, others have no intention of instigating a mass ‘return to work’. As the way we work has changed dramatically, we must negotiate a number of challenges if we are to achieve a semblance of ‘business as usual’.

Let’s be clear: remote working is not inherently bad for businesses. Quite the opposite, in fact. A recent Racontuer report states that 55% of businesses note higher levels of productivity when staff work remotely. However, this comes with a trade-off. The report goes on to state that remote working can hinder a business’s ability to innovate. For many companies, this is a very undesirable side effect. So, while remote working continues to be the norm, what can we do about it?

In this article, we’ll explore why the office environment encourages innovation, as well as any benefits of remote working that can be used to companies’ advantage. And finally, we’ll share some tips about how teams can continue to innovate even when they’re forced to work separately.


Do offices = innovation?

When we understand what it is about coming into a workplace that makes companies more innovative, we can capture some of that and apply it to teams working remotely. From what we can tell, there seems to be a couple of factors at play.

One general theory is that employees are in a more clearly-defined ‘work mode’ when they come to the office. Subconsciously, they know they’re there to think creatively and problem-solve, and they just get on with it.

Secondly, there’s a lot to be said for those watercooler moments. You know the ones: when you bump into a colleague in the corridor and pick their brains about something you’re working on.

Companies that lead in innovation, such as Google and Apple, have shaped their company culture around this. Think lots of break-out areas for five-minute huddles, and thought-provoking events for staff. Before COVID, very few employees at the ‘tech giants’ worked remotely for this very reason. Even IBM, a company that was famed for its remote workforce, encouraged staff to return to the office in a bid to boost innovation (pre-COVID, of course).

As social creatures, this human element is probably the biggest factor driving innovation. So, this is what businesses need to emulate virtually to enable innovation when teams are working from home.

Other remote working challenges that can hinder innovation include speed: there are no spontaneous, five-minute huddles when you’re all working from home. Meetings need to be set up, scheduled, and chaired. Additionally, remote workers are more likely to experience loneliness and burnout, which can make innovation more difficult.


Your secret weapon: the perks of remote working

It would be remiss to paint our current age of remote working as one purely of doom and gloom. For starters, some remote working is essential in order to keep people safe from the virus.

Secondly, there are a number of very real benefits to remote working that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, playing on these strengths may help businesses encourage innovation among remote teams.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of remote working is an overall boost in employee happiness. Eradicating the commute gives staff a better work-life balance and improves mental health. It also benefits employees’ physical health, as it is easier to eat well, make time for exercise, and manage any health conditions. These things, in turn, can provide serious business benefits.

It’s well-known that satisfied employees are up to 20% more productive. Happy staff are also more creative and willing to take risks. So, if remote working is good for employee wellbeing, businesses may be able to capitalise on this to drive up innovation. However, it may require some clever interventions.


Encouraging innovation among remote teams

Now, we don’t claim to be experts on employee engagement (we’re sticking with R&D tax relief). However, we do know a thing or two about innovation, and we’ve done plenty of research into supporting remote teams to achieve the best results. Here are just a few things we’ve found…

Recognise that this is a new challenge
Don’t treat remote working the same as working in an office, and don’t expect the same results. If staff are going to be working remotely, encourage them to make the most of it. Be supportive of things like lunchtime walks. A change of scenery can work wonders for inspiring new ideas, but an overbearing manager probably has the opposite effect.

Schedule fewer meetings…
Zoom fatigue is real. Not only does video-conferencing drain energy, it also kills productivity and innovation. Three-quarters of employees surveyed in 2020 said they thought Zoom calls were a waste of time.

…But encourage more communication.
A bit of spontaneous chat can provide a much-needed boost to idea generation and morale. So how can businesses recreate these watercooler moments without the watercooler? We love this suggestion we found in Raconteur: encourage staff to call five people a week who they would normally bump in to in the office. “There’s no agenda, no formal calendar invite, just a random call to say hello, see how they’re doing and see if this sparks a good idea or new opportunity.”

Ensure staff feel supported
Innovation relies on positive, creative teams. Done right, remote working may be just the thing to facilitate this. However, without proper management, remote teams may feel lost and unsupported. Business leaders should generate a supportive culture, encouraging regular check-ins (scheduled and unscheduled), rewarding creativity and innovative thinking.


Remote working is our new normal, leaving the business landscape much-changed. But, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. While we have little choice but to adapt to any challenges thrown at businesses over the coming months, who knows what this change will inspire?

person using laptop remote working

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