Posted: 10 Aug. 2021 12 min. read

Remote work and innovation

Breaking the innovation orthodoxy

WfA Blog 3: Innovation

Historically there has been a widely held belief, or “orthodoxy,” that companies cannot innovate in a remote work environment.  The past 15 months have shown us that notion is untrue. The global COVID-19 pandemic imploded this and many other long-held business orthodoxies as companies sought to respond to and recover from its impacts. Now, the deliberate evolution that stems from that disruption in business and business orthodoxy is what will distinguish companies amid the competitive post-pandemic marketplace.

As the post-pandemic pace of change continues to increase, innovation remains imperative. Customers demand it. Competitors may outflank you if you don't achieve it. Talented employees might not join – or remain at – your firm if you don't deliver it. Analysts expect it. Investors reward it. Amid COVID-19, we were able to break with orthodoxies to deliver it.

Indeed, proven new models of innovation also break with business orthodoxies of the past. For many years, executives equated innovation primarily with the development of new product and service offerings.  As organizations began to focus innovation on areas such as configuration and experience, there was a commonly held business assumption that there was no disciplined, consistent method to drive innovation. The 10 Types of Innovation framework offers a consistent methodology that any organization can use in order to achieve game-changing breakthroughs across multiple types of innovation. This is particularly important as organizations readjust their business and operating models in a post-pandemic world.

By understanding and applying some of the disruptions of the pandemic across the innovation methodology, we can understand how pandemic-powered disruptions drove innovation in ways big and small, spanning across the 10 different types of innovation. For example:                                                                 

Disruption and Innovation in Configuration: Supporting the Remote Workforce

The pandemic spurred structural and process changes globally in the overnight shift to remote work. The very ways of working changed with overnight innovations enabling the shift from work and workers traditionally bound by physical space to a new connected and collaborative digital ecosystem, within and across country borders.

The traditional understanding and acceptance of the “9-5 workday” imploded. Suddenly in the face of a global pandemic, commutes became a thing of the past, enabling new start and stop times for work. Many parents balanced work with children at home in virtual school and/or shifted work hours around their kids’ childcare schedules. This sort of accommodation was inflexible in a traditional physical office environment, but within the context of the pandemic, organizations shifted – indeed innovated – their structure and processes to include more flexibility to enable and accommodate work schedules built around the real-world human needs of their employees.

Beyond the breaking of the 9-5 orthodoxy, another common configuration orthodoxy completely shattered amid the shift was the assumption that remote and work-from-home employees are less productive than onsite employees. Datapoint after datapoint shows the efficiency and productivity enabled by remote workplace innovations that launched rapidly over the pandemic. Over the past year, workers across all levels have productively worked from home and delivered services at the same or, in many cases, higher levels than before.

Today, the majority of employees want the flexibility to remain remote or return to the office on a hybrid basis rather than full-time. This is a major reshaping of employee expectations and preferences. It will be exceedingly difficult for employers to argue that employees must come back to offices full time after seeing them work remotely for more than a year. Employees don’t want it, and employers can no longer prove the value of it beyond a long-held business orthodoxy and C-suite or managerial team cultural mindset. Companies now need to innovate their configurations and adapt their structures, processes, and networks to this trend to retain employees and remain competitive players in the talent marketplace.

Disruption and Innovation in Offerings: Keeping Pace with Pandemic-Prompted Behavior Change

Prior to COVID-19, sectors such as banking and retail had been innovating and expanding online offerings. The pandemic catapulted expansion and consumer adoption. Gone were the original assumptions about the year-to-year conversion of bringing customers out of brick-and-mortar experiences and into the digital space. With the pandemic, what was predicted to take five years took five weeks.

The speed of human behavior change increased dramatically, prompted by the pandemic. Companies that were able to innovate offerings to the unpredictable and rapidly evolving consumer needs of the pandemic were able to thrive. Many small businesses that had been getting their toes in the water in the digital space had no choice but to find ways to virtually serve customers. Similarly, the banking and insurance organizations that served small businesses – often by face-to-face client interactions based on personal relationships – had to innovate their offerings and services to meet the small business challenges and realities of the pandemic. For example, online working capital loans and virtual check deposits were quickly added as offerings – small but important offering enhancements to meaningfully serve the needs of small business clients. These small, incremental productive innovations and enhancements are equally as important as innovating new products altogether.

Retailers serve as another example of experience-enriched offering prompted by the pandemic. Stores and virtual malls, for example, releasing innovative technologies to let online shoppers “try on clothes” virtually.  Consumer interest in such technology expanded much more quickly than anticipated pre-pandemic. The speed of human behavior changed, and offering enhancements evolved to keep up as never before, making both incremental and dramatic enhancements to meet the rapidly changing needs and behaviors of customers.        

Disruption and Innovation in Experience:  Humanization of Service, Support and Engagement                                                                              

The overnight flip to a remote workforce and virtual customers posed new challenges to service delivery and customer engagement and upended the long-held assumption that in-person is better than virtual.  From online music lessons and fitness classes to onboardings and training, the digital space performed. Instead of being limited geographically, instructors and learners had unfettered access to each other across cities, states, countries, and continents with the ability to teach and learn from anywhere.

Online academic learning had been previously exclusively deployed in higher education only based on an assumption that K-12 students could not effectively learn virtually. The past year’s virtual schooling – while not ideal – has largely performed. Similarly for professional learning, development, and training. While school is assumedly returning in-person in the fall, the delivery of online learning opportunities in the workplace and for personal interest is likely to stay, and even grow.

Similarly, amid the pandemic, there was a dramatic humanization of professional life across employee/employer relationships and customer/business relationships. The common assumption of the clear divide between personal and professional lives dissolved.  Via virtual meetings enabled by collaborative technologies, colleagues could see each other at home, see their pets and see their children. They saw each other in t-shirts and baseball caps. Customer service representatives fielded inquiries about their families and their health as well as about the products they were supporting. Personal and professional worlds became much more interconnected than they were pre-COVID. This deepened relationships and trust. There is now a terrific opportunity to build and innovate from these new deepened relationships.

For many, the very structure of the service function changed.  Prior to the pandemic, for some job functions in regulated industries, work was not allowed to be done outside of the designated physical location. Certainly, this was true for call centers supporting the financial services industry, where, because of security protocols, staff had to be on-premise to access sensitive client information. The pandemic’s disruption forced innovations to security protocols and network deployment to enable service and enable call center staff to work from home – a huge change in the structure of call center service functions. This is likely the start of a shift from call center hubs of hundreds or thousands of employees in one location to global call center teams working from home to enable 24/7 support outside of a dedicated physical space – essentially a call center with no physical center.                 

Flip Your Orthodoxies to Fully Innovate

Over the year ahead, as organizations move from responding to the pandemic to thriving in a post-pandemic world, challenges and uncertainty will continue. Proactively root out orthodoxies and assumptions that are getting in the way of your organizations’ ability to recover and thrive. Make those a point of focus. Challenging, and potentially “flipping” these orthodoxies can often lead to new and better ways of working. The innovation that stems from the disruption of these assumptions is what will distinguish companies in the post-pandemic world, and in the competitive Work from Anywhere talent marketplace.

Build a culture of innovation by focusing across the three categories – configuration, offerings, and experience – and 10 types. A culture of innovation builds when innovation is not focused in one area, but across the spectrum.

Remember, the pandemic was a catalyst for innovation in almost every element of business. Such innovation was strategized, operationalized, and implemented in an all-remote workforce environment.  When businesses trust their employees – remote, onsite, and hybrid – and empower them with the right mix of tools, then collaboration, productivity, and innovation can thrive.