Pessimists are said to be the happiest people on earth, for they celebrate when their own predictions don’t come true.
There was a shock wave of panic last spring when, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, firms around the globe had to switch to remote work, suddenly and en masse.
One can, therefore, easily understand the sense of relief, almost euphoria, filling the air when the captains of industry realized that switching to remote work hadn’t resulted in the immediate collapse of the corporate world.
Remote work works and has a future. That was a conclusion of a report composed by Upwork, a freelance marketplace, based on online surveys of corporate managers conducted at the end of April 2020. (Given that only a few weeks passed after the beginning of the remote work “experiment,” the conclusion of the report looks a bit rushed up, doesn’t it?)
Yet, voices of pessimists on the other side of the barricade were heard already, too. Some academics warned that online communications, a hallmark of remote work, were characterized by lower information sharing—and that meant the increased likelihood of poor decision-making in the short term and the reduced exchange of ideas between the employees in the longer term.
Now, just published data suggests that the pessimistic predictions about potential danger of remote work holds a lot of truth.
Innovation in peril?
A group of researchers from Microsoft analyzed communication practices of 61,182 U.S. Microsoft employees before and after Microsoft’s shift to firm-wide remote work. The major observations were as follows:
- Remote work caused business groups within Microsoft to become less interconnected.
- Remote work reduced the number of ties within the company’s informal collaboration network and caused employees to spend less time collaborating with the ties that remained.
- Remote work caused employees to collaborate more with their stronger ties, which are better suited for information transfer, and less with weak ties, which are more likely to provide access to new information.
- Remote work caused employees to communicate more via asynchronous media channels (email and IM), which are better suited for conveying information, and less via synchronous ones (video and phone calls), which are better suited for converging on the meaning of complex information.
Summing up their results, the authors concluded that shifting to remote work made Microsoft’s collaboration network more siloed, more static, and less “rich.” And although the authors didn’t directly measure any innovation outcomes, they fully expect that the effects on innovation of changing collaboration and communication patterns will be negative in the long term.
A sober conclusion, given that Microsoft postponed the employee return to the office—yet again.
Internal innovation networks to the rescue
Now matter what you think about the “letter” of the Upwork report, its “spirit” is right on point. Remote work is here to stay. So, the major question right now is how to minimize the potential negative consequences of remote work on innovation.
The answer lies in plain sight: internal innovation networks (IINs).
Although IINs provide organizations with many benefits, two are particularly relevant to overcome the shortfalls of remote work.
First, IINs provide a communication channel between different corporate functions and units that often have no institutional framework to discuss strategic issues. By providing such a channel, IINs create a common intellectual space, which not only allows to exchange complex information but also to facilitate an in-depth discussion of it.
Second, by hosting innovation contents and competitions, open to the whole company, IINs enhance and formalize existing weak ties. This may result in the creation of a new knowledge, which is often superior to the one created within established hierarchical teams.
This is not to say, of course, that firms should abandon or even scale down the existing external/open innovation initiatives. The point here is that the full innovation potential of any organization can only be realized by the concerted effort of connected employees capable of identifying and defining their own problems.
Regardless of whether we’re living in “normal times” or in the case of an emergency.
Image credit: https://www.newcybersource.com/network-solutions/