Avoiding a Hybrid Remote Work Innovation Problem

Hybrid Remote Work Could Destroy Innovation. Here’s What to Do.

By Avery Francis and Stefan Palios

Major companies from Shopify to Twitter to Slack have announced long-term hybrid remote work arrangements, meaning some employees will be fully remote while others commute into the office. While many companies successfully innovate when they are entirely remote, hybrid companies face a bigger challenge. Where all-remote companies simply need to create virtual cultures and virtual methods of connection, hybrid remote environments risk a two-tiered employee experience that hampers information flows and innovation.

Thinking about a hybrid remote arrangement and want to avoid creating an innovation vacuum? Keep reading.

How Innovation Vacuums Happen

In a business context, innovation has an explicit commercial lens. It’s about creating new revenue lines, adding more customers, or earning more wallet share from current customers.

Innovation itself comes from a process of smart people sharing knowledge at a high frequency. The work environment either facilitates or hinders this process, which is made of two key elements:

  1. Talent: Smart people who continually learn.
  2. Environment: Ensuring information is shared, added upon, and cumulatively built into something net-new.

In general terms, the innovation formula is this:

(Smart People x Learning Ability) x Frequency of Information Sharing = Innovation

All-office companies are geographically limited in terms of people they can hire. That said, physical offices are a prime environment for a high frequency of information sharing. A century of business history shows the office environment can support innovation.

In an all-remote work environment, there is a nearly unlimited potential to source smart people. While there’s no physical office, tools exist to create virtual environments that make up for the lack of physical space. Companies like InVision, Buffer, Automattic, and Basecamp have proven this model of innovation.

Hybrid remote models add a layer of complication because they have two “information highways” – the physical office environment and the virtual environment. Leaders either have

to duplicate everything (nearly impossible) or operate teams in those two lanes (reduces the effect of smart people).

However, all is not lost with hybrid models. It just requires careful consideration to how innovation can play out. Here’s what leaders need to think about.

Communication Systems

A common refrain from leaders of in-office businesses is that remote work doesn’t allow for the random conversations, overhearing, or overseeing that can spark new ideas. But instead of trying to mimic office collisions, leaders should use communications systems that are built for remote collaboration and brainstorming.

Here are a couple ideas:

Compass Calibration Meetings

A weekly (or daily) meeting to go over key organizational priorities and how all company initiatives roll up into those priorities. This provides a recurring opportunity to ingrain the company’s innovation goals into regular work and gives employees the chance to seek clarifications quickly.

Communication Triage

Use different tools for different kinds of communication (one for essential work, one for

non-essential work, and one for social/casual conversation). That way employees can more easily focus on the task at hand versus wading through notifications.

Inclusion

While the choice of where and how someone works is a huge part of inclusion, hybrid models face a social inclusion risk. When friendships are formed from after-work drinks, remote workers aren’t included. Or when virtual socials aren’t attended by in-office workers, a two-tiered system begins to emerge. Regardless of the office / remote set up, though, leaders should still be auditing the company for inclusion practices.

Combat this by ensuring equal treatment for all employees:

  • Managers should host one-on-ones with in-office and remote employees.
  • Team conversations in-office should either be audio recorded and uploaded or notes taken and shared for remote team members.
  • Share anecdotes and stories from both virtual and in-person social events in a common place so every employee can share in the memories created or experiences shared.
  • Offer the same salary bands, financial bonuses, and similar perks to remote and in-office employees.

The reality is that a hybrid system will never be 100% the same for remote and in-office employees. However, this doesn’t have to destroy innovation. Your job as a leader is to cultivate the right experiences so everyone can succeed.

Culture

Culture is made up of a few fundamentals, in particular processes and systems that guide and encourage the interactions that lead to innovation. From there, custom-build the culture for the organization with features like how you surprise and delight employees, customers, and your community. This is something Bloom helps companies develop.

Here are a few tactics to kick-start a strong hybrid remote work culture:

remotely or in-office after they get an offer.

  • Onboard everyone in the same way, whether they are in the office or remote.
  • Think about perk equivalents. If the company provides catered lunch in the office, send gift cards to local restaurants to remote employees.
  • Provide opportunities on a regular basis for the whole team to get together in person, both in non-work contexts (like a retreat) and for work (like bringing everyone to the office for one week a quarter).
  • Offer remote workers a stipend to set up their office or provide a coworking membership (in-office workers get the benefit of the actual office). This way you won’t have pay discrepancies but keep the culture of “having a work space” consistent across employees.

When it’s innovation you want, you need culture. It’s the pavement that goes on the information highway. Make it smooth and the information will travel more quickly.

Hybrid Remote Companies Can Still Win

It’s absolutely easier to innovate when your company has only one information flow – either in the office or all-remote. However, a purposeful hybrid company can still win. It starts with realizing that there will be two information systems, and counting back from there. While you can’t eliminate this issue entirely, you can build strong enough creativity, inclusion, and culture systems around it that employees will still be able to innovate at a fast pace.

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