January 27, 2021
Nearly a year into sweatpants as work-wear and sharing an office with our pets, new ways to work are taking root. We recently shared data that shows a significant increase in both executive and employee interest in working in part-time in-office and part-time from home (aka hybrid working)—over 50% across business sectors.
The year of bobbing and weaving through mandated work restrictions, safety concerns, and economic challenges has finally offered some insight on what works and what doesn’t. Research shows that the initial fear business executives had was that employees would severely lack productivity at home. This concern was unfounded. In many cases, productivity rose as workers blazed through tasks that were once subject to random interruptions or long meetings.
What we also know based on recent survey data, is that as productivity rises, creativity takes a nosedive. Some of the same circumstances that provide team members the space and silence to crank out tasks has limited the profound insights and necessary energy needed to ignite innovation.
Fast Company contributor Elizabeth Lowery writes, “While individual tasks aren’t suffering, the social connectivity that sparks collaborative creativity and innovative thought is falling off.”
Her conclusion has also been backed by a study done through The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Michael Parke supervised the survey-based study. The study polled about 9,000 managers and employees in large firms in 15 markets across Europe, with about 600 respondents per country. They found that businesses tend to spend less money and take less risks during uncertain times, but researchers also attribute the current innovation deficit to the difficulty with collaboration.
“It’s a challenge to feel connected, confident and communicate effectively with the team, and we know from a lot of research that creativity and innovation largely happen through collaboration,” Parke said.
As Parke relays and many businesses are discovering, the dip in innovation is the biggest downside to remote working. The good news is Parke’s survey also reveals three simple solutions leaders can adapt to overcome the creativity drought and maintain high levels of productivity.
The first is to make sure that employees have access to a wide range of collaborative tools.
Parke suggests not limiting team members to specific tools like Zoom or email. Instead, he suggests onboarding a number of different platforms so that each employee can find what suits them in order to stay connected and collaborate well.
The suggestion is an interesting one. Often we choose a handful of tools that everyone is required to adopt so that information has a steady current and a trusted location day by day. However, the advice Parke gives here may be beneficial in the adaptive phase of hybrid or remote working for each employee. It may not work well for one team member to join all calls on Zoom if his children are in the background doing remote learning in the same space, or if it’s helpful to a team member to walk or pace while they are brainstorming in a meeting. Some team members may brainstorm better on a virtual whiteboard than they might typing thoughts linearly in a Google Doc. The preferences are pretty much endless and so are the myriad tools available to aid in the hybrid or remote creative experience.
Allowing for what one workplace architecture firm calls “co-creation” allows team members to share what works best for them—whether it’s office set up, technology, or working hours—and then aims to culminate those ideas into the system that the business is built on.
The second tip Parke suggests is to train employees on how to work remotely. While productivity expectations for workers are the same or higher than they likely were a year ago in their in-office roles, the way they do their work has been swept out from under them. The change in environment, project cadence, and goals requires new expectations and training on how to work well.
In a survey created by UK based Actus group, 68% of respondents say they must learn on the job, despite expecting formal training development.
It is definitely harder when managers don’t have a constant line of sight into all their employees, all the more reason why trust, accountability, and clarity become important. Leaders must find ways to communicate objectives and expectations effectively, and course-correct when necessary.
Training is key in ensuring results, compounding the value of a team member’s time, and monitoring progress in reaching goals.
Finally, Parke emphasizes the importance of establishing a routine way of connecting with your team and sticking to it.
The Wharton School study found that workplaces where managers had regular meeting routines—town halls, one-on-one reviews, brainstorming sessions, etc—were better at transitioning to hybrid work because they maintained those routines.
The sweet spot here is when a business establishes those repeated, planned meetings, but releases their team members into the wild at other times.
Professor of Management and Psychology, Adam Grant says “Successful remote teams aren’t in constant contact. They alternate between independent work and rapid-fire bursts of communication. Instead of sending messages at all hours, they focus energy by agreeing on times to check inboxes and respond rapidly.”
This kind of predictability allows for team members to more successfully block time for deep work activities while creating a forum for creative thinking with the team as a whole.
As we move into the norm of hybrid work, creativity will be challenged. With these solutions in mind we have a greater opportunity to maximize the benefits this new world is giving us.