How Employers Can Innovate in Remote Working Environments

Remote work is here to stay, but how can innovation happen in a workplace with no fixed location?

Working from home and away from the workplace has become the new normal for most organisations in 2020. This shift brought about by the disruptive force of COVID-19, has been largely embraced, resulting in reports of increased productivity and wide scale adoption. 

Yet following months of enforced home working, the challenge facing HR and organisation leaders, combined with their employees, is how can innovation still occur in this world of working remotely?

With the notable absence of physical presence, connection and office based interactions where new ideas would traditionally have been sparked, the inevitable challenge of how to innovate at work is a pressing one.

Where we are today

Home working has provided an invaluable solution to the COVID-19 problem of how to continue business operations whilst helping to ensure the safety of employees. For most organisations whose employers range knowledge workers or administrative type roles, switching to working from home has provided a plausible solution and one that has also provided an opportunity for employees to recapture time typically lost due to commuting. 

The shift to HR and organisation leaders has also accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, supporting business services that are now largely provided to online audiences, greater investment and uptake of cloud computing, the implementation of remote training solutions and the redesign of management practices to accommodate remote teams.

Employees who are working from home are less likely to be innovative

Employees have generally welcomed the introduction of home based working if they haven’t had an opportunity to work in this way before. And where this has previously been a standard way of working, employees have also welcomed the increased levels of greater scheduling flexibility and the capacity to juggle childcare or wider caring responsibilities introduced as a result of the pandemic crisis. 

However a report written about the impacts of remote working on innovation, by the University of Cologne and Leibniz University Hannover; innovation and communication media in virtual teams: an experimental study.

Innovation and Communication Media in Virtual Teams – An Experimental Study
Innovation and Communication Media in Virtual Teams – An Experimental Study

Suggested that employees who are working from home are less likely to be innovative, whilst also outlining that team members who are video conferencing as opposed to working together in person, can experience negative impacts to their capability to innovate.

The current challenges facing innovation at work

Innovation typically occurs spontaneously, benefiting from the presence of being in a physical environment. Face to face and micro interactions that occur either in the workplace or during in person interactions like those that happen over coffee. 

However despite this Google, Facebook, Siemens and many other organisations of varying sizes have not only made the shift to more permanently embrace remote working. But have also instructed their people to work from home until at least July 2021. This shift to more wholly adopt digital working across physically dispersed locations is driving the ways in which innovation at work now has to adapt. 

If you’re a company based in Silicon Valley and you decide to embrace permanent remote work, you could use that as a selling point to attract tech talent who have already decided to leave the Bay Area

Many organisations and their employees have experienced what could at first have been described as being a struggle to get to grips with the shift. Operating largely via video call and tech based communication landscapes, communicating in a way that has now shifted to take place wholly online has inevitably impacted the impulsive spark of conversations, creativity and ideas sharing that used to happen in real time. 

Where workshops and team meetings would previously have been scheduled to bring together individuals from potentially disparate teams together in person. These interactions previously brought with them the ability to have ice-breakers, joviality, strategising and the vital connection of different personalities in environments that engendered diversity of thought. 

Now that these interactions are taking place via screens only, which can be hampered by wi-fi connectivity issues through to physical isolation along with employees working from none specified work places such as their kitchen table or bedroom. The challenge that innovation now faces in the remote workplace is one that is increasingly complex.

Remote working environments can still innovate

Yet despite the challenges, there are ways to now replicate the creative sparks and energy of teams who historically would have worked together in person. 

In a report commissioned by Google, who have close to 100,000 workers spread across 150 cities, in more than 50 countries, on five continents. Their People Innovation Lab, PiLab found that there are a number of ways that they and other organisations can adopt to increase connectedness, improve well-being and drive innovation despite having a team spread out across the globe. 

By retaining a blend of traditional and modern management principles, which will support employees in their pursuit of doing great work whilst working virtually, it’s possible for employers to not only get the balance of people management, but also aiding innovation. These include:

  • Being flexible and adaptable, welcoming change and trialling new ways of working 
  • Becoming results and output oriented, whilst being clear on expectations and a preparedness to accommodate challenges 
  • Collaboration increases through enhanced digital adoption 
  • Setting objectives based on team dynamics 
  • Empowering employees to drive innovation by focusing on the enhancement of both individual and team skills that optimise performance 

Google’s findings as part of this report, as shared by Veronica Gilrane, manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, were promising “We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office.”

The solutions to explore

The findings by Google’s PiLab also recommend really getting to know your people. Particularly as individuals may be facing a number of challenges that are unique to them or may be causing specific issues during the complexities of this current period.

1. Get to know your people

Getting to know your people can be relied upon to make the difference with your employees. This can be achieved by making simple changes to the way you communicate with each other virtually, such as making time at the beginning of online meetings to have informal discussions about what people have up to. Replicating the sorts of conversations that you would likely have if you were meeting with each other in person. 

It can also work well to gain an understanding of what people’s schedules include. What meetings do individuals need to accommodate and how will this fit with any personal or family commitments they are are also responsible for handling.

2. Encourage the setting of clear boundaries

Innovation can also be supported by individuals and teams being encouraged to set clear boundaries. When people have the time and space to not only do their work, but to also think, innovation and the creation of new ideas are able to follow. 

Clear communication guidelines can support the setting of boundaries, which in turn can increase the headspace for individuals allowing them greater scope required to innovate. 

Guidelines that have worked well for Google in the effort of boundary setting have included: 

  • Schedules being open & shared, answering the question of when do people have availability
  • Meeting cadence & expectations, when do meetings take place, what must be attended and which team members are expected to join
  • Communication expectations, such as ideal response times and taking into account cross time zones and out of work time

By including individuals and teams in the creation of boundaries, adoption levels and buy in will be significantly increased.

3. Build connections that increase trust

Making connections amongst co-workers and employers is one of the key ways to develop a culture of trust. The innovation process requires significant levels of trust for those employees who are participating in the creation of new ideas. 

People should not be criticized for identifying problems and weaknesses with existing processes. They should be listened to and rewarded.

Yet building trust and connection with your colleagues takes considerably more effort when you’re not able to meet, talk and share moments in person, which would traditionally have  created trust inducing bonds. 

The research indicated that by encouraging people to connect on a personal level, sharing directly over a call or video call what’s been happening in their day, plans for the weekend or even what they’ve been finding challenging in their work or personal life, opportunities to connect are increased. 

Instant messaging and email whilst good, often aren’t enough to connect a team together with the objective of building trust. This means that it’s beneficial for teams to make the additional effort in getting together to connect socially, in addition to work alone. 

Making arrangements to bring teams together for lunch, social activities such as team quizzes or even for more informal interactions such as virtual cocktail hour or book clubs, all offer opportunities to increase trust and connection.

Bringing it together

Great organisations are built on the innovation brought about by their people. And whilst the challenges being felt by organisations who are now largely working remotely, there are many ways that are now proving to be successful in driving innovation amongst remote working teams. 

HR and employers can also benefit by leveraging the capabilities of HR software that also seeks to drive innovation in these new normal times. Which is one of many good reasons to explore the latest range of features by CakeHR

Providing our customers with future proofed solutions to HR management challenges is at the heart of CakeHR’s philosophy and this time has resulted in our teams innovating to create new features that help you to use remote workforce to the fullest. 

Our latest features that we encourage our customers to try include an announcements feature, which will help you with your corporate communications and allow you to share timely information quickly and easily with your teams. A survey’s feature which has been designed to empower your employees by giving them a voice and finding out how they’re feeling on the things that matter to them and to your organisation. And an esignature feature which takes the headache out of figuring out ways to sign documents remotely, by enabling you to do this now digitally using this CakeHR feature. 

The role you play as in HR or as a business leader can’t be underestimated during this time. Through adopting the suggestions made here, leading by example, building rapport and fully utilising the solutions brought about by digital technology, you will start to unlock the full potential of remote working and the innovation that can come along with it. 


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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

CakeHR is a one stop shop for your HR management needs. With attention to user experience & making the software easy to use yet packed with loads of features we strive to make your HR management as easy as a piece of cake!

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.