To stimulate and refine ideas for innovation, organisations have traditionally relied on the energy of face-to-face, copresent teams collaborating both formally and informally in meetings, cubicles, and corridors, and at watercoolers. The dynamic energy created by copresence is considered critical for embedding innovation into an organisation’s workplace culture. But after the pandemic drove a mass exodus from the office and the transition to remote work, leaders need to understand how they can embed innovation in remote teams.
Early in the pandemic, of necessity, organisations emphasised business continuity and scaled up their existing capabilities to manage teams remotely. The seemingly insurmountable challenge - delivering results without copresent office-based teams - was met with surprising success.
The prospect of a full return to the copresence of the traditional office is still far from imminent. Remote work is here to stay, and evidence of its benefits for productivity is undoubtedly good news. But top-line growth for long-term organisational success demands more than productivity; for continued innovation, it’s essential that opportunities for connection be embedded across the organisation’s remote teams.
To understand how leaders can respond to this challenge, we interviewed senior executives at more than 20 global organisations across multiple industries, from born-digital firms to more traditional businesses. We uncovered two complementary principles of leading remote teams for innovation — connecting for collaboration and connecting for contradiction — both of which are essential to creating opportunities for innovation.
Connecting for collaboration
To innovate, leaders need to be exposed to new ideas from every level of the organisation and shepherd the most promising ones to success. Previously, copresence in the office or routine trips to remote offices enabled employees to form myriad personal relationships and to participate in spontaneous micro-engagements that supported each step of the innovation journey. Remote work, with its attendant physical distance and virtual communication, requires leaders to pursue innovation by purposely connecting themselves with individuals on a one-on-one basis — within their own remote teams; with the front line; and upward, to champion ideas and build support.
Innovating requires team members to collaborate, engage, and come forward with new ideas. There is no simple recipe for building collaboration, which relies on personal, direct connections among individual team members. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, leaders must purposely connect with their immediate team members one-on-one.
A senior vice president of a leading telecommunications company described a time when he sensed that a team member was having difficulties, and he simply called that person on the phone to check in directly. This short, spontaneous call shifted the whole tone and calibre of their relationship, enabling the more engaged exchanges required for innovation.
Building the connections for collaboration also demands that leaders understand and respond to the individual challenges of team members. The CFO of a technology giant described how, by deliberately imagining herself in the shoes of individuals on her team, she was able to offer support in a more meaningful way, which in turn boosted collaboration and engagement. One-on-one connections and conversations are essential for building the collaborative trust that underpins innovation in remote teams.
Connecting to the front line
The front line of the organisation, including administrators and sales representatives, are often those who most closely interact with customers. Innovation relies on these front-line employees voicing their novel ideas and intuitions and, crucially, be listened to. For members of the front line to willingly collaborate with leaders and to openly share suggestions, leaders must deeply and deliberately connect to these employees.
One senior vice president of a leading technology company described how he uses the time previously spent flying to high-level senior management meetings across the globe to attend more routine virtual meetings held by his senior managers with their front-line staff. His regular interactions and increased accessibility to more employees across multiple levels encourages team members to more openly share their ideas with him and use such meetings as an opportunity to build the connection and collaboration that can drive innovation. Moreover, these front-line employees’ regular exposure to the executive’s big-picture organisational perspective can help ward off siloed thinking and enable the more holistic perspective required for innovation.
Embedding innovation also requires senior managers to collaborate upward with executive-level decision makers in order to garner resources and support for their ideas. Pre-pandemic, connecting to decision makers at in-person meetings or through social events was often relatively easy. Now, instead of carefully choosing the right moment to propose an idea during an informal chat, senior managers must deliberately connect directly with C-suite decision makers to informally test the waters. One vice president described how he identified the best time in the CEO’s work routine to informally connect through a quick phone call.
Direct, one-on-one communication helps keep new ideas from being buried in a sea of emails or agenda items and allows for building strong collaborative networks with decision makers. Connecting upward informally, especially before critical meetings, can build executive-level familiarity with and support for the innovations a senior manager introduces.
Connecting for Contradiction
Sustained innovation in remote work requires leaders to not just connect for collaboration, but also to connect for contradiction by bringing together multiple diverse skills, experiences, and perspectives. Traditionally, the naturally arising random conversations, tensions between perspectives, and energy of spontaneous debate through copresence in the office triggered the controversies and contradictions that innovation demands.
Yet technology platforms for remote working, such as chat tools and virtual whiteboards, are not yet able to replicate the everyday cognitive synergies and frictions that happen casually in physical offices, let alone the naturally arising polarisation of views that occurs through random face-to-face conversations. To achieve the tension and debate necessary for innovation in remote workplaces, leaders must deliberately polarise perspectives, juxtaposing and exaggerating different or opposing views, and enable individuals to see the bigger picture.
For this polarisation of perspectives to be effective, leaders have to be skilful in animating and managing debate and acting as a pivot point between different perspectives. A marketing vice president of a global technology giant described how he uses stories and metaphors to simplify complex ideas and exaggerate the differences in opposing views and options to activate the energy and creative conflict among employees for innovation.
Remote working can be a boon for innovation by enabling greater diversity of views. The vice president of strategy at a leading global consultancy described how virtual conversations can include external experts and remotely located colleagues, given that such interactions are much more cost- and time-efficient to organise than in-person meetings. But, as this leader explained, it is not enough to just access the diverse perspectives; translating this benefit of remote working for innovation requires her to first identify the differences between diverse opinions and then present these opinions as opposite viewpoints. This tactic of exaggerating differences in opinions and expertise is required to encourage more vigorous debate and stimulate fresh ideas in a remote work scenario.
Highlighting differences in views also allows leaders to help remote workers transcend functional perspectives and isolated interests so they can see the organizational big picture. As technology does not (yet) allow remote workers to grasp the interconnectedness of the organisation’s moving parts — which is often required for successful innovation — leaders must directly connect the different levels, functions, and specialisations to embed innovation in remote teams.
In sum, leaders can embed opportunities for innovation in remote work by connecting for both collaboration and for contradiction. Operating in tandem, these two approaches ensure that leaders create a virtual culture where new ideas arise, the most promising of which can be translated into innovative outcomes to help ensure the organisation’s long-term success.
Pamela Sharkey Scott is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Dublin City University; Esther Tippman is Professor of Strategy at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Mark Gantly is Professor of Management at the National University of Ireland, Galway.