Creating a strong culture of virtual collaboration is key to continued innovation
DCU and NUIG research finds key principles of successfully embedding innovation in remote teams.
Research led by NUI Galway and DCU Business School has found the key principles of creating opportunities for innovation whilst teams work remotely. In a recent study of over 20 global organisations across industry sectors, including a mix of young, high-growth organisations and well-established global giants with both digital and physical offerings. Through interviews with senior executives, the study found that connecting for collaboration and connecting for dissent or contradiction – are both critical to enabling continued innovation.
Professors Esther Tippmann (NUIG) and Pamela Sharkey Scott (DCU) with Mark Gantly (Adjunct Professor at NUIG and former President of the American Chamber of Commerce) found that leaders can embed opportunities for innovation in remote work by creating a virtual culture where new ideas arise, the most promising of which can be translated into innovative outcomes to help ensure the long-term success of the organisation.
Organisations have traditionally relied on the dynamics of face-to-face, co-present teams to facilitate collaboration, which may happen in planned, formal meetings, or informally through “watercooler chats.” With remote working set to stay, business leaders will need to pivot their understanding of how innovation can take place remotely to support business growth.
For continued innovation, leaders must deliberately connect themselves individually with employees, both within their team, within upward management and within the front line of the organisation. In the absence of spontaneous micro-engagements which can take place in a physical office, managers and leaders must turn their attention to connecting individually to facilitate the growth of innovation.
The principles for innovation in remote teams uncovered in the research include:
Connecting one to one: In the absence of face to face interactions, leaders must purposefully connect with their immediate team members one to one. One-to-one connections and conversations are essential for building the collaborative trust that then underpins innovation in remote teams, enabling team members to bring forward their opinions to generate innovation.
Connecting to the Front Line: Front line workers in an organisation include administrators and sales representatives, who closely engage with customers. These team members are a critical source of information for innovation, due to their intimate knowledge of the end-user and customer. In order for these team members to willingly collaborate with leaders, business leaders must connect to these staff members.
A Senior Vice President of a leading technology firm described how he uses the time previously spent flying to high level senior management meetings across the globe to attend more frequent, routine virtual meetings with senior managers as well as 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 and use such meetings as an opportunity to build the connection and collaboration that can drive innovation.
Connecting Up: Executive-level support for new ideas and innovations is required in order to secure the resources to support rolling out a new idea. Whilst previously managers could connect to decision makers at physical meetings, innovators must now purposefully connect directly with decision makers when floating new ideas. One Executive Vice President described how he identified the best time in the CEO’s work routine to informally connect through a quick phone call. The research found that direct communication is highly important to give adequate airtime to ideas and avoid innovations being lost in a meeting agenda or busy email inbox.
Connecting for Contradiction: Bringing together diverse points of view, skills and experiences is helpful to innovation but may sometimes give rise to tensions or differing opinions – which is in itself important to innovation. Technological tools such as virtual whiteboards do not yet replicate the dynamics of spontaneous debate in organisations. The research found that to achieve the tension and debate necessary for innovation in remote workplaces, leaders must deliberately polarise perspectives, juxtaposing and helping remote workers to transcend their perhaps siloed or isolated interests and to engage with the bigger picture. For this polarization of perspectives to be effective, leaders have to be skilful in animating and managing debate and acting as a pivot between the different perspectives.
As the Director of Strategy of a major software multinational advised, ‘everything has changed in the last few years. Covid helped in some ways as a massive change was needed so that we could do what is needed. We have to be disruptive, we have to challenge everything we do. Change is the normal to grow’.
DCU’s Professor Pamela Sharkey Scott commented,
“We examined what the leaders saw as the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on their organisation and what leadership competences they identified as most important. From this research it’s clear that innovation remains a high priority for multinational companies based in Ireland and elsewhere, and the identified principles of connecting to both collaborate and to contradict underpin successful innovation as remote working continues.”
Dr Esther Tippmann, NUI Galway added,
“Organizations have traditionally relied on the energy of co-present teams to stimulate ideas for innovation. Before the pandemic, many leading innovative organizations invested heavily in attractive workplaces, but office work had to be abandoned when the Covid-19 pandemic demanded an incredibly fast transition to remote working. Now, it is clear that remote working, in a managed way, is here to stay. With productivity goals being largely met, we found that many organizations find it challenging to embed innovation in their remote teams. So, the leadership principles for driving innovation in remote teams offer explicit guidance for leaders. While we studied multinationals located in Ireland, the principles are of relevance to all types of organizations where remote working is an integral part of the organisational model.”
*This research took place over nine months involving 20 Irish-based multinational companies from young, high growth organisations to established organisations and across several industries. Interviews were conducted with respondents drawn from leadership roles such as site leads, directors and the C-Suite.