Hybrid and remote work is better for innovation, not worse


Fear of losing their innovative edge drives many leaders to reject hybrid and virtual working arrangements. Yet extensive research shows that hybrid and remote teams can gain an innovation edge and outperform in-person teams by adopting innovation best practices, such as virtual brainstorming. What explains this gap between leadership beliefs and scientific evidence?

Having consulted for more than a dozen companies during a strategic return to the office, i discovered the root of the problem. Most executives have tried to pursue innovation during deadlocks by adapting their synchronous brainstorming approach in the office to video conferencing meetings. They have found that video conferencing is not well suited to traditional brainstorming, so they feel like they need to get back to the office.

Unfortunately, these leaders do not study and adopt modalities better suited to virtual innovation. This inability to strategically adapt to their new situation threatens their capacity for innovation. It’s because employee survey results show that 25-35% want to work remotely only, and 50-65% want to return to the office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two on site. Additionally, 40-55% said they feel ready to quit if they don’t get their preferred times, and indeed many have already resigned when employers tried to force them back. To say the least, it’s hard to innovate with so much of your workforce quitting and the rest demoralized due to such high turnover rates.

Errors in judgment block innovation

Leaders often fail to adopt innovative best practices due to dangerous errors in judgment called cognitive biases. For example, rejecting best practices in favor of pre-established pathways is an error in judgment called functional fixity, and this applies a lot to science-based virtual innovation.

A cognitive bias linked to functional fixity is called the syndrome of the uninvented here. This refers to leaders who feel antipathy towards uninvented practices within their organization, including new methods of innovation.

Overcoming cognitive biases to successfully return to the office and thrive in the future of work requires the use of best practices based on research. This involves the implementation of a hybrid model of one to two days of interim while allowing a substantial minority of employees to work remotely full time.

The disadvantages of traditional brainstorming

In-person synchronous brainstorming represents the traditional approach to intentional innovation. This involves groups of four to eight people meeting in a room to come up with innovative ideas on a shortlisted topic.

Behavioral science research reveals that the benefit in generating ideas from such brainstorming comes from two areas. One implies synergy of ideas, when ideas shared by one participant help trigger ideas in other participants. The other is social facilitation, when participants feel motivated by knowing that they are collaborating with their peers on the same goal.

However, these advantages have counterproductive effects. One is blocking production. That’s when someone has an innovative idea in a group discussion, but other people are talking about a different topic and the innovative idea gets lost in the mix.

If this has never happened to you personally, you are probably outgoing and optimistic. Introverts have a lot of difficulty with blocking production. It is more difficult for them to formulate ideas in a team brainstorming environment. They generally think best in a quiet environment, alone or with one other person as much as possible. And they find it difficult to interrupt a flow of conversation, which makes it more likely that their idea will not be expressed.

Those who have more pessimist than optimist personality also struggles with brainstorming. Optimists tend to deal verbally, spitting out half-cooked ideas on the fly. It’s perfect for traditional brainstorming. In contrast, pessimists usually deal internally. They feel the need to reflect on their ideas, to make sure that they have no flaws. Although brainstorming explicitly allows mistaken ideas, it is very difficult for pessimists to overcome their personalities, just as it is difficult for introverts to generate ideas in a noisy team environment.

Pessimists are also strongly impacted by a second major problem for traditional brainstorming: apprehension of evaluation. Much more pessimistic and / or of lower status, members of the junior group feel anxious about sharing their ideas openly, due to social anxiety about what their peers would think of those ideas. Plus, despite the instructions for sharing wacky ideas, a lot of people don’t want to be seen as weird or out of place.

As a result of these problems, numerous studies spectacle that traditional brainstorming is considerably worse at generating innovative ideas than alternative best practices. It’s a great way to help build team alignment and collaboration, and to help group members feel good about participating. But you shouldn’t kid yourself that using this technique will maximize innovation. So if you want to leverage innovation to gain or maintain your competitive edge, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go.

A virtual brainstorming guide

Trying to brainstorm traditional video conferencing is a poor substitute for the energizing presence of colleagues in a small conference room, thus weakening the benefits of social facilitation. It is also subject to the same evaluation apprehension problems as traditional brainstorming.

Instead of the losing proposition of videoconferencing brainstorming, leaders need to embrace the best practices of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.

Step 1: Initial idea generation. To get started, team members generate ideas and enter them digitally into a shared collaboration tool. To harness social facilitation, the group can contribute ideas to a digital coworking meeting. Focus on quality over quantity and consider the contradictions between ideas. Science To find that this focus on opposing objectives facilitates innovation.

Submissions should be anonymized to avoid appraisal apprehension. However, the team leader should be able to track each person’s submissions later for responsibility.

Perfecting these ideas involves the following steps:

Step 2: Clean up the idea: The facilitator categorizes the ideas and sends them to all team members.
Step 3: Evaluate Ideas: All team members anonymously comment on each idea.
Step 4: Revised Idea Generation: Team members can organize another idea-sharing session, re-evaluate old ideas, or generate new ones.
Step 5: Clean Up Revised Ideas: Clean up and categorize the revised ideas using step 2.
Step 6: Evaluate Revised Ideas: Comment on the revised ideas.

Step 7: meet to discuss ideas. Finalize which ideas can move on to implementation. This type of convenient planning meeting is easy to organize virtually for full-time virtual workers. It also works well for steps 1-6 to be done virtually by hybrid teams and then to perform step 7 in the office. However, it is essential to avoid doing steps 1 to 6 in the office, to avoid stalling production and apprehension of evaluation.

Does virtual brainstorming work?

Research in behavioral economics and psychology demonstrates the superiority of digital brainstorming over in-person brainstorming. For example, a to study By comparing virtual and in-person groups, in-person groups felt better about their collaboration. However, the sentiment turned out to be misleading: The same study found that virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas being generated.

In reality, research finds that the larger the group in person, the fewer new ideas there are per person, the opposite is true for electronic brainstorming. This means that with more people you get a greater number new ideas per person. This is probably because of the removal of appraisal apprehension and production blocking, which tend to increase with the addition of more people.

Virtual brainstorming creates as many new ideas as possible, thus gaining an advantage in innovation. It also provided the optimal experience for most of the group, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower and higher status members. Team leaders who judiciously prioritize integrating introverts, pessimists, and lower status team members into the team – which is more difficult than integrating extroverts, optimists, and status members higher – find virtual brainstorming particularly beneficial.

Executives who want to gain an innovative edge in the future of work should avoid sticking to pre-pandemic innovation methods. Use research-based best practices like virtual brainstorming to boost innovation in your hybrid and remote teams.

Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in the management of sustainability risks and cognitive biases, is CEO of the sustainability consulting firm Experts in disaster prevention, and is the bestselling author of several books, including Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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