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“I don’t see how we can replace the serendipitous innovation advantage of hallway conversations. If we don’t return to the office full-time, we’re going to lose out to rivals who do so and gain the benefits of serendipity.” That’s what Saul, the Chief Product Officer of a 1,500-employee enterprise-software company, told me at its planning meeting on the post-vaccine return to office.
This is a common issue among organizations and one that can only be addressed by adopting best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work, as I told Saul. The problem was that while leaders tried to pursue innovation during the lockdowns, they also tried to impose their pre-existing office-based methods on virtual work. When that didn’t work, they pushed for a full-time in-office schedule after vaccines grew widespread, despite the obvious dangers to retention and recruitment of doing so.
That’s because employee survey results show that 25% to 35% wanted remote work only and 50-65% wanted to return to the office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two onsite. Forty-to-55% felt ready to quit if they didn’t get their preferred schedules, and indeed many have already resigned when employers tried to force them to return. To put it mildly, it’s hard to do innovation with such a large part of your workforce quitting and the rest demoralized due to such high rates of turnover.
Numerous leaders fail to adopt innovation best practices due to dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blindspots result in poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating options. They render leaders unable to resist following their gut.
Many have a desire to turn back the clock to January 2020 and go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things. Thus, they try to go back to their previous innovation practices, despite the major disruption of the pandemic.
While leaders would like to think that they are making data-driven decisions, they have obviously ignored the data and denied reality. This denial is due to another cognitive bias, called the ostrich effect. It is based on the mythical notion of ostriches burying their heads in the sand when facing danger. The leaders deny the serious dangers of retention and morale difficulties undermining innovation if they force employees back to the office.
Defeating cognitive biases to return to office successfully and thrive in the future of work requires the use of research-based best practices. It means a mainly hybrid setup of one to two days in-office for most, while a minority work full-time remotely.
Many leaders deployed traditional methods to facilitate serendipitous conversations during the lockdowns. These included encouraging team members to have such conversations, organizing team meetings hoping that members would have such discussions on the sidelines and even scheduling regular videoconference happy hours with small breakout groups.
However, these methods, as the leaders discovered, just transposed in-office practices on the virtual environment. They don’t work for something as spontaneous as serendipitous innovation.
Leaders need to use a native virtual format and tap into the underlying motivations that facilitate the creativity, spontaneity, and collaboration behind serendipitous innovation. This means creating a specific venue for it and incentive collaboration without forcing it. For example, organizations using Microsoft Teams would have each team set up a team-specific channel for members to share innovative ideas relevant for the team’s work. When anyone has an idea, they would share that idea in the pertinent channel. Everyone would be encouraged to pay attention to notifications in that channel. Seeing a new post, they would check it out. If they found it relevant, they would respond with additional thoughts building on the initial idea. Responses would snowball, and sufficiently good ideas would then lead to more formal idea cultivation and evaluation.
This approach combines a native virtual format with people’s natural motivations to contribute, collaborate and claim credit. The initial poster is motivated by the possibility of sharing an idea that might be recognized as sufficiently innovative, practical and useful to implement, with some revisions. The contributors, in turn, are motivated by the natural desire to give advice, especially advice that’s visible to and useful for others in their team, business unit or even the whole organization.
This dynamic also fits well the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You’ll find that the former will generally be the ones to post initial ideas. Their strength is innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, but their flaw is being risk-blind to the potential problems in the idea. In turn, pessimists will overwhelmingly serve to build on and improve the idea, pointing out its potential flaws and helping address them.
If you want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work, you need to avoid the tendency to stick to pre-pandemic innovation methodology. Best practices for innovation in the return to the office, such as serendipitous idea generation, will enable your remote and hybrid teams to gain a competitive advantage.