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According to the authors of this article, employees tended to communicate more with close colleagues in their own departments after the introduction of working from home and remote video meetings during the Covid pandemic.

Working from home inhibits innovation. But researchers know how to fix it

SHARE YOUR SCIENCE: When you work from home, you tend to communicate more with the members of your own team. This is good for implementing ideas. On the other hand, you also communicate less with other groups, which does not encourage the creation of new ideas. But all this can be fixed.

Immediately after the initial pandemic lockdown, when millions of employees started working from home (WFH), Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella expressed his fear that social networks and trust between employees would start to break down.

Research results published recently in the prestigious periodical Nature indicate that his fears may have been well-founded. WFH and the movement towards digital conferencing resulted in a reduction in interdepartmental communication. On the other hand, employees tended to communicate more with close colleagues in their own departments.

These changes are proving to have major significance for the ability of businesses to innovate.

Confirmation here in Norway

Studies of the explosion in WFH during the pandemic carried out by SINTEF, as well as in-house research at Telenor, both reveal patterns that are very similar to the results published in Nature. We found too that WFH promoted an increase in communication within technical teams, accompanied by a decline in interdepartmental dialogue.

It was easier to generate new ideas before the pandemic, when everyone was in the office together.

At the same time, we observed that many employees working from home found more time for continuous concentration because they did not have to commute and were subject to fewer interruptions. This is good news for the ability of businesses to tie down ideas and put them into practice.

We also found that collaboration with colleagues in your own team while working from home can accelerate the work needed to convert ideas into real-world solutions.

“One percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”

In order to understand these results, we will do well to remember Thomas Alva Edison’s famous remark that «Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration».

Edison was trying to say that the work involved in generating new ideas was quite different from that required to develop defined concepts and put them into practice.

If conditions are favourable, we humans can be relatively quick when it comes to developing an original idea. However, in a business context, converting an original idea into a new product requires prolonged and focused development work involving the process of defining a concept, developing and testing prototypes, analysing test data, obtaining financing and developing market awareness.

This kind of development work is often best carried out by colleagues who speak the same technical language, who share a high level of mutual trust and are able to meet on a frequent basis.

Ideas are further developed in networks

SINTEF’s research into product developmenis demonstrating that employee networks are the key to the further development of ideas. The opportunity to work with ideas over time as part of an established team, with access to the best people, is proving to be crucial to achieving good outcomes in the long term.

But none of this is of any use if we are not generating new ideas in the first place.

Risk of ideas drying up

Unfortunately, when communication between different technical teams goes into gradual decline, the opportunities for generating entirely new ideas become fewer. Indeed, research results show that if a business is seeking to generate a large number of original ideas, it should be ensuring that contact is established between employees from a diversity of technical disciplines and cultures, offering a variety of experience, world views, age and gender.

These employees must also be given the opportunity to meet on a frequent and, if possible, ad hoc basis. A diverse group is better equipped to make entirely new associations  and generate original ideas than a group with similar backgrounds representing a narrower world view.

But higher levels of WFH have made all this more difficult. It was easier to generate new ideas before the pandemic, when everyone was in the office together. This enabled people with different backgrounds to meet in ad hoc surroundings, either in the corridors or at lunch. It was also easier then to establish fixed, cross-disciplinary meeting places.

This is how to resolve the problem

Fortunately, your business can address these difficulties by adopting the following approach:

  • Switch from a calendar-based to a task-based schedule for employee presence in the office. During periods of intense innovative activity, a greater proportion of employees will have to be in the office at the same time. 
  • Establish permanent arenas that facilitate innovation and cross-disciplinary network building. Examples from Telenor and SINTEF include so-called ‘hackathons’ (where developers work to complete tasks within predefined time limits), ‘pitch nights’ (during which employees engage with potential investors), shared demos of new systems, technical theme days and in-house conferences. 
  • Introduce visitor/guest arrangements Innovation within an organisation takes place as part of previously established, cross-disciplinary networks. Such networks are most effective when businesses encourage visitors/guests to contribute. 
  • Make sure that employees who are not in the office every day spend some time in informal, social conversation on the days when they are present. 
  • Organise social activities immediately after work.

Best of both worlds

By adopting this approach, your business can benefit from the best of both the WFH and office-based worlds. The trick is to stop counting how many days a week any given employee spends in the office, and instead delegate them tasks that are adapted to where they choose to work.

(This article was first published in the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv on 11 April 2023 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.)

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