How Remote Work Threatens Innovation and How to Fix It
On my first visit to a remnant prairie, I came across an exquisite spider web, secured among grasses and plant stems. Imagine such microscopically thin threads able to withstand vigorous wind and animal movement while secured only to grasses!
Spiders are architectural geniuses. In a single web, they spin hundreds if not thousands of connections and cross-connections.
In traditional in-person office settings, our work connections are vast, intricate, and strong, like spider webs.
We have multiple ties to each individual and across teams.
Our connections are strengthened and expanded as we take part in formal and informal interactions, observe body language, have conversations, and participate in shared experiences.
Broken or weakened threads are continually renewed or repaired, through spontaneous lunches or even a simple smile across the hall.
With the benefit of a robust spider web of connections, most professionals began their remote work journeys in early 2020. Two years on, our spider webs have broken down. Many of the threads of connection have snapped and there have been few opportunities to rebuild them. Our spheres of influence have contracted, perhaps tightening among our direct team members while dropping connections with coworkers in other departments.
In a fully work-from-home environment, our webs break down into a handful of weak threads that are always at risk of snapping from a poorly stated Slack message or an irritated voicemail. People new to the team, without the advantage of prior in-person connection-building, are even worse off.
A recent study that analyzed volumes of Microsoft employee data from several work-from-home months sounds the alarm to companies that have continued with remote work. The study demonstrates that the effect of remote work without deliberate strategy is likely to destroy longterm innovation and organizational culture.
Here’s what to do about it, based on the top findings from the study:
- Deliberately Build Non-Team ConnectionsThe transfer of new and valuable information that is necessary for innovation relies on connections with those outside of our “strong network,” or direct team. These connections tend to decrease dramatically when we work from home. We rely much more heavily on our strong network connections, which actually can get stronger. However, this causes the organization to become more siloed and the connections across teams to decrease. This specific finding does not bode well for future innovation outcomes.
To reverse this trend, companies must deliberately create opportunities for remote or hybrid employees to build connections throughout the organization. As discussed in the next finding, this can be done through a combination of remote and in-person strategies.
- Increase Synchronous CommunicationCommunication modes among employees can be characterized as more or less valuable. In-person communication is the richest mode, while other synchronous modes like phone and video calls are also beneficial. Asynchronous communication like email, Slack messages, and texts are weakest. The study demonstrated a distinct decrease in synchronous communication and a spike in asynchronous communication when workers are remote. Prior research has shown that excessive email use makes it difficult to establish rapport, and this can be said for texts and instant messages also.
To enrich the way people interact in your organization, take steps to increase opportunities for synchronous communication. Cut down on email or Slack by creating guidelines for what these channels should primarily be used to accomplish. Perhaps controversial or growth-oriented topics should default to calls, video calls, and in-person interactions while email and Slack are used primarily for logistics and administration.
It’s incredibly important to get your teams back in person to continue to develop a strong spider web of connections among individuals and across the organization. Some companies are requiring two days per week; others plan a robust, quarterly meet-up during which both work and fun get accomplished; and some get together in smaller teams according to planned or spontaneous needs.
There is no standardized blueprint for exactly how you should start rebuilding connections in your particular business; this can be done according to organizational need and constraints. But it’s certain that your employees’ webs have become weaker and less connected during years of mostly remote work; these need to be renewed and rebuilt to keep your business growing and innovating.
For more tips on keeping your hybrid or remote teams connected, read this excellent article from my friend Mark Rickmeier, CEO of TableXI.
Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.