Fostering Innovation in the Hybrid/Remote Workplace

Prioritising innovation has become a business imperative for leaders looking to future-proof their organisations. But building and maintaining a workplace culture that effectively fosters creativity presents fresh challenges in a world where hybrid and remote working patterns are increasingly commonplace.
Diane Nowell
Jun 30, 2023

Organisational culture is more than an abstract corporate philosophy; it’s both a reflection of a company’s current health and an indicator of its as-yet-unrealised potential. If this culture is positive, dynamic and resilient, it not only creates a scalable platform for growth but also makes it easier to attract and retain the best talent – even when it’s a scarce resource.

When companies centre innovation, they add greater value still, freeing employees to think ahead and empowering them to take the risks that lead to game-changing discoveries.

Yet, with more people embracing hybrid and remote work models, opportunities for in-person innovation are dwindling. And, although flexible working seems to deliver many proven personal and business benefits, its low-contact approach has the potential to imperil innovation.

How can businesses retain the gains in productivity and wellbeing that accompany greater workplace flexibility while boosting innovation?

Embracing change

Promoting innovation among hybrid and remote teams can be challenging. Without the usual workplace-based, face-to-face opportunities for sharing knowledge and ideas organically, remote colleagues can feel cut-off from their teams and from the culture that binds them together.

Business culture can be more readily grounded – and stories of successful innovation percolate more effectively – when people are gathered in a fixed and familiar location. It may even be that employees are simply more inspired to innovate when they feel a physical connection to the business and to their colleagues.

Robin Dey is Head of Client Solutions at workplace strategy consultancy, Unispace. The company’s recent survey of 3,000 office workers in the EMEA region, titled The Reluctant Returner, explores the challenges of maintaining a strong business culture among a remote workforce.

‘Encouraging innovation and creativity often requires people to freely bounce thoughts off one another and our research suggests that this is difficult to achieve in virtual environments.

‘Of those we surveyed, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) stated that it was easier to bond with and get to know colleagues in the office; conversely, more than half (52 per cent) felt they could be more creative working from home.’

It’s clear that a new approach is required – one that is specifically designed to promote innovation, communication and collaboration within a flexible culture that supports a wider range of work models.

According to Robert Ordever, European MD of workplace specialist O.C. Tanner, organisational agility is key.

‘To innovate successfully, businesses need to stay nimble: innovation thrives in a culture where employees have faith their organisation can evolve.

‘It’s not something that can happen overnight, so businesses must embrace trend-watching and refuse to become complacent. Significant changes will take time and energy to integrate into company culture, so preparation and planning are critical to staying ahead.’

Creating communities

Providing a platform for collaboration is crucial. Absent daily contact, business leaders need to consider how they can gather people together to work on shared opportunities or problems and to forge the professional and social connections essential for innovation to thrive.

Graham Glass is the CEO and founder of cloud-hosted learning platform Cypher Learning. Graham recommends that companies quickly embrace and implement the many tech solutions designed to foster collaboration among distributed teams.

‘If people feel isolated from their employers, innovation suffers. We’re engineering more advanced systems today featuring virtual communities – ways to support casual chats and brainstorms, problem-solving, and supportive dialogue over distance.

‘Businesses should implement communications and upskilling platforms that not only coax workers out of their team-based silos but that reward exploration.’

Clear lines of communication – between leadership teams and the workforce, as well as between individual workers – will also help unlock the fruitful exchange of ideas across an organisation.

But it’s important that employees feel supported to prioritise initiative and innovation over results: showcasing successful ideas alongside the many inevitable disappointments should shift the emphasis away from outcomes and towards the analysis of process.

Mehdi Bagherzadeh is Associate Professor of Innovation Management ‎at NEOMA Business School. Mehdi believes that organisations should go a step further by not just encouraging but normalising honest and open discussions on managing failures as well as celebrating successes.

‘To promote innovation, organisations must ensure that employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and knowledge. Creating a sense of psychological safety lets employees know that it’s OK to take risks, communicate thoughts and concerns, ask questions, and acknowledge errors without fear of negative consequences.’

Sharing knowledge

For the most part, this strategy works with remote teams in the same way as it does for in-person interactions.

In order to establish courageous, psychologically safe teams, businesses must be willing to build some slack into their systems for formal and informal ideas exploration. The key to success for a distributed workforce lies in how well leaders can facilitate this free exchange of ideas without regular face-to-face time.

Cassandra Rosenthal is the co-founder and co-CEO of Kaleidoco, an entertainment technology company built for Web3 experiences. Cassandra argues that breaking down silos is crucial to successful innovation – and is something that can and should be pursued, regardless of employees’ geographical location.

‘Believing that innovation can originate from anyone within the company, regardless of their role or background, unlocks a world of endless possibilities.

‘Without the in-person interactions and spontaneous conversations that often spark creative ideas, though, it’s important to intentionally create opportunities for collaboration. Digital tools enable real-time collaboration and provide space for organic discussions that would typically occur around the water cooler, promoting the generation of fresh ideas. In this way, organisations can sustain a vibrant culture of innovation that transcends physical boundaries.’

In fact, hybrid teams may well favour more meritocratic collaborations, as virtual interactions offer the opportunity to elicit contributions from more diverse – and traditionally underrepresented – voices.

Dr Catriona Wolfenden is Product & Innovation Director at Weightmans LLP.

‘There are challenges associated with maintaining an innovation culture in a hybrid/remote workplace but there are also some opportunities.

‘For example, not everyone wants to contribute, or feels confident to contribute, in a physical workshop but online collaboration tools allow you to foster a sense of innovation community, while also recognising people’s preferences for synchronous or asynchronous innovation collaboration.’

Travelling together

We know that nurturing a culture of innovation brings immense benefits to businesses, helping leaders to build resilience and sharpen problem-solving skills, as well as keeping employees engaged and energised.

However, in order to prioritise creativity – especially amid so many competing priorities – teams must be encouraged to balance their workload, to carve out time to think, reflect and brainstorm in and out of the office.

Gabriela Hersham is co-founder and CEO of curated workspace provider Huckletree.

‘Human connection sits at the heart of innovation, so blocking out time to come together can help maintain an innovation culture across a distributed workforce.

‘Even if companies come together in person only occasionally, this can make a huge difference to create a sense of purpose and belonging. Personal relationships play a really important part around happiness and creativity at work.’

It’s worth striving for. A successful innovation culture will boost productivity and provide the tools and motivation to innovate, adapt, and progress. But it will require a carefully considered, holistic strategy that enables people to share their purpose with colleagues near and far.

Crucially, everyone will need to be equipped, supported and trusted to find the ways of working that create the most opportunities for innovation.

Robert Ordever: ‘So long as innovation is lived and breathed across the organisation – championed wherever and whenever possible, encouraged by leaders and frequently recognised and rewarded – employees will be encouraged to think and act creatively regardless of where, when and how they work.’

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant