Can Innovation Work in a Work-from-Home World?

“The basic problem with working in the office is that you are just not in control of the work environment.”

Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic (WordPress), TED’s The Way We Work video series, January 2019

From the very first days of the COVID-19 crisis, US media has been awash in stories and images about the sudden rise of the ‘work from home’ (WFH) phenomenon. Millions of office workers around the world were told to “stay in your homes…but keep on working and collaborating.” While global stock exchanges rapidly fell into bear market territory, Zoom rose 100% in February and March. The free Zoom app climbed to the top spot in the Apple App Store, ahead of YouTube and Netflix. Houseparty was close behind. Big Tech’s offerings – Google Meet (Hangouts), Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams – also experienced growth. But only Zoom is now in our common lexicon as a verb meaning ‘to videoconference’.

Many terms have been applied to this phenomenon including telecommuting, telework, virtual work, remote work and distributed work. For our purposes here, ‘work from home’ is the most appropriate term. Before the pandemic, the actual full-time WFH share was 3-10% according to various estimates. Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics said recently, “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”

Whether you are an executive, manager or individual contributor with the responsibility to effectively navigate the next 6-18 months, it is imperative to be thinking more deeply about what WFH means for you, your team and your organization. If you need data to be convinced, there is data: WFH statistics. Here are tips on which of three top videoconferencing apps is right for you, which WFH technology to buy and how to achieve peak WFH productivity. Just in time, there are now tips on how to avoid WFH burnout. Finally, we can now start to see some nostalgia for the way office life used to be: What’s Missing from Zoom.

If you prefer podcasts and the deeper thinking that they can offer, here are two good ones

  • Matt Mullenweg appeared in late March on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast in an episode called The New Future of Work. Mullenweg is the founder of Automattic, a San Francisco startup that developed the extraordinarily popular open source content management system known as WordPress. All 1,200 employees at Automattic across 70+ countries are full-time WFH.
  • Professor Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was interviewed on the Recode Decode podcast show in an episode called How Quarantine will Transform the Way We Work. Grant has his own podcast called Work Life with Adam Grant and happens to be the youngest tenured professor ever (at age 28) at the Wharton School.

If you prefer the cliffs notes version of this avalanche of written and spoken content, here are a few of the more salient points:

  • Our collective experience during this pandemic is not the best test of whether WFH is a good alternative to office work. Many people now have a significant distraction and the added stress from children at home due to closed schools or unavailable childcare. We ALL have the added stress of worry for the health of family and friends at this time.
  • The optimal share of WFH at the individual level is rarely 100%. Some minimal degree of face-to-face time is crucial to building personal trust. Even WFH evangelist Matt Mullenweg asks his global teams to meet face-to-face several times per year. It’s also clear that 0% WFH is rarely the right answer. The ideal WFH range in most situations appears to be roughly 40% to 95% depending on the situation. It is also very much a matter of individual preference. There appears to be a binodal distribution – some people really like WFH and others prefer the office dynamic.
  • Done the right way and in the absence of a pandemic, a proper mix of WFH and in-office can increase productivity AND creativity AND reduce stress levels. Organization-level advantages include the ability to hire from a global talent pool, 24-hour follow-the-sun project execution, more efficient meetings, more creative meetings and better decision-making. Personal-level advantages include the flexibility to use all of the hours in the day to best advantage including less commuting (less stress); the ability to personalize the work environment with air quality and temperature, sunlight, pets, music, etc. (more joy); and the potential for deeper and more creative thinking (more productive).
  • Managers are usually the greatest bottleneck. WFH requires quite a significant shift in how they motivate and measure worker performance. The shift is at the level of mindset and behavior. For workers, the transition is mostly about learning a new set of tools, although some behavioral adaptations are also helpful.
  • Tools do matter. It is important to ensure that WFH workers are properly outfitted and trained in the use of the tools from both a technical and behavioral standpoint.

Let’s shift now to the primary focus of this article. For corporate innovators, there is a unique set of WFH concerns and questions. Can innovation be done effectively in a WFH mode? If so, how so? The framework below will guide the discussion. There are eleven fundamental innovation tasks that comprise the vast majority of the work in corporate innovation. These tasks can be assigned to three categories according to how easy or difficult it is to accomplish these tasks at WFH.

We will take a deeper look at each of the three categories with particular focus on the Amenable to WFH category.

1 – Easy WFH Tasks

Some innovation tasks are naturally individual, computer-based and easily performed in the home. These ‘Easy WFH’ tasks include:

  1. Secondary research: Online work required to identify and substantiate new ideas and potential partners using a range of web search tools (increasingly AI-enabled).
  2. Analysis & synthesis: Computer-based work using spreadsheets, mindmaps and other applications to perform quantitative or qualitative analysis to generate insight and support decision-making.
  3. Document preparation: Development of presentation materials for informing or discussing analysis and recommendations.
  4. 2D/3D digital design: Designing 2D or 3D digital renderings of products and user experiences using CAE/CAD/CAM software platforms.

The obvious assumption is that all required computing hardware platforms can be made available for use by office workers in their home offices.

2 – Difficult WFH Tasks

There is another set of tasks which are quite difficult or impossible to execute as work from home. These ‘Difficult WFH’ tasks generally must take place at facilities outside the home.

  1. Physical prototyping: Creation of physical prototypes of products or service offerings usually requires some sort of physical maker space not likely to be found in the home.
  2. User testing: Putting physical product or service prototypes in front of end users to gather feedback for redesign and market forecasts.
  3. Pilot production & testing: Moving from prototypes to pilot production & testing for physical products and services requires facilities outside the home.

As noted in the footnote above, for digital products and services, these tasks become unnecessary or convertible to WFH.

3 – Amenable to WFH Tasks

In between Easy WFH and Difficult WFH, there is another set of tasks which are Amenable to WFH. It is generally assumed that these tasks are better done face-to-face in an office, laboratory, or other location. However, this is primarily the force of old habits and mindsets. When these habits are challenged, real benefits arise from approaches that are compatible with WFH – remote, asynchronous and independent.

  1. Primary research: The collection of information and insights acquired directly from customers and other ecosystem participants via direct engagement. The prevailing assumption is that this work is best done via face-to-face contact with the subject(s). In fact, it is nearly always faster, less expensive and more effective to engage in remote interaction, either live or asynchronously. It greatly improves our ability to get to anyone anywhere in the world more quickly and less expensively. Also, research has shown that voice is a more reliable indicator of emotions than body language, though videoconferencing capability now enables both voice and facial expressions if that is preferred. One caveat – it is still critical to establish trust through communication in advance of the scheduled engagement and at the outset of the conversation.
  2. Ethnography: Technically, ethnography is a type of primary research but it deserves special attention because traditional ethnography, by definition, requires the researcher to visit the location where relevant observable activities are taking place, such as a factory, a hospital, a retail site or the homes of consumers. However, digital platforms and mobile devices have offered a ‘virtual ethnography’ alternative for many years now. Again, the ability to do this work in an asynchronous, remote way opens up benefits in speed, cost and effectiveness that would be difficult to accomplish in a live, on location event.
  3. Ideation: The prevailing view is that face-to-face interaction of a group of people generates more creative outcomes, that it spontaneously generates new ideas that would not otherwise have surfaced. This can certainly happen. However, research has shown that there is also much dysfunction in these forums:
    • The extroverts and the loudest voices tend to dominate the process.
    • Men have a tendency to talk more than women.
    • The most senior voices seem to somehow have better ideas.
    • It is difficult for people to be creative spontaneously at a preset day and time.
    • Lack of good information in real time leads to bad decisions about which ideas survive.

Inovo has long practiced an approach to opportunity discovery called “slow burn” ideation. It’s a technique that has proven its effectiveness over the past 15 years in hundreds of innovation initiatives. It can be used by itself, or in conjunction with more traditional brainstorming activities. It is an iterative, asynchronous approach that leaves it to individuals working on their own time to identify and develop ideas, interspersed with periodic group feedback sessions in which ideas are debated and shaped and new ideas are created. These feedback sessions are also effectively done in a virtual fashion. It immerses both the individual and the group in new learning and gets the subconscious mind engaged in the creative process. The elapsed time for this approach to ideation is longer but the quality of the ideas that are created and prioritized is superior.

  1. Portfolio decision-making: The commonly accepted belief is that decision-making benefits from a live face-to-face “scrum” in which all opinions get expressed and discussed, allowing the best decisions to emerge from a rough-and-tumble debate. Again, research has shown that there is much dysfunction in these forums. The most senior person in the room has dominant influence over decision outcomes, even when this person actively tries to negate this influence. In the context of innovation portfolio decision-making, consider this alternative:
    • Thorough and consistent profiles of each eligible concept are created.
    • The concept profiles are presented digitally to 10, 50 or 200 internal subject matter experts and influencers across the company via an online platform like Survey Monkey (Inovo has its own platform called Viewpoint).
    • Each participant expresses their preferences on their own time and independently, without consult with or influence from others.
    • The voting results are then analyzed by function, business unit, organization level, etc. and presented to a working group for discussion and debate. All votes have equal power.

This provides an independent, honest perspective that is inevitably eye-opening. This drives an honest conversation about the pros and cons of the various concepts. In the end, senior leaders make final investment decisions, but it helps these leaders to have a true representation of the perspectives of the organization when making these decisions.

Based on these task-level assumptions, all activities in an innovation system can be assigned to three categories according to the extent of work that can be WFH – full WFH, partial WFH or low WFH. The infographic below is Inovo’s representation of a high-performing innovation system deployed by many companies across multiple industries. Each activity has been color-coded, according to the key below the graphic. It is clear much of our work in innovation can be accomplished effectively in a full WFH mode whether the situation demands it or not. This is especially true in the front-end of innovation and for much of incubation as well.

For digital products and services, the entire graphic above could effectively be ‘full WFH’. In a post-COVID-19 world, it is certain that many of these tasks and activities will revert to the office, lab, or other location outside the home. However, it is equally certain that this forced WFH experience will cause many to realize that some of these activities and tasks can benefit from more individual, independent, asynchronous activity, which lends itself to a WFH environment.

It is not possible, nor advisable, to do innovation in a 100% WFH mode. But there are real advantages to asynchronous, independent, remote work in the innovation process. For Inovo, projects have always had an unusually high degree of this type of contribution from project team members for the reasons cited earlier. The difference now is that this work has simply moved, by necessity, from the office to our homes. This is a modest adjustment to make for results that could be superior to the way most innovation activities have traditionally been done.

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