Will Remote Working Damage the Dynamics of Innovation?

Author: William Seabrook
Date: 00.00.0000
While remote working is not a panacea for Covid-challenged economies, it has enabled plenty of enterprises and organisations to find new ways of operating.
But what will its impact be on the dynamics of innovation?

Much innovation stems from close collaborative working. It comes as much from unplanned and informal encounters as from scheduled workshops and meetings. Innovation is often the product of an environment. This environment is difficult to replicate remotely.
Diversity Drives Innovation
Although there is an enduring creation myth of the lone, isolated genius toiling away, ongoing innovation comes from collaboration and teamwork.
Collaboration and teamwork benefit greatly from diversity. This includes diversity of thought and diversity of background.
MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that there was greater cross-disciplinary collaboration when there was closer proximity between students on campus. And work cultures which are both diverse and inclusive can gain a competitive edge. For example, research shows that high-skilled immigration can increase innovation.

The more a melting pot of diversity a business is, the more it can absorb new ideas effectively.
But if the business case for diversity is a strong one, how can this translate to a remote working model?
Productivity Isn’t Everything
What embracing technology and using it to adapt has done is enable many companies to maintain a reasonable degree of productivity during lockdown and other restrictions. 

But productivity isn’t everything.
The business landscape continues to change, even during the pandemic, and adopting new and bold approaches to business are essential for long-term survival.
This is where innovation is worth its weight in gold. Already there has been a circling of the wagons in the face of the economic threat posed by Covid-19. And the risk is that remote working only heightens this siege mentality, because it is a barrier to spontaneous collaboration. It remains to be seen whether how we work will change permanently as a result of the pandemic, it’s still too early to endorse remote working as the natural successor to the office.

For now, while we are in the middle of this crisis, working from home is proving to be the right solution for many companies. But the whole aspect of innovation through collaboration will require a more varied approach.

What might this be?
Will Offices and Co-working Spaces Change?
Realistically, if there’s a viable alternative, few organisations will want to spend vast amounts of money on commercial real estate if they can’t fill these spaces effectively. At the same time, many people have discovered that there are enormous benefits to working from home when it comes to the work-life balance and avoiding stressful daily commutes.

Therefore, from a cultural perspective, companies must work out how to achieve a balance between an employee-focused approach, and the need for dynamic collaborative working environment, which draws on diversity and spontaneity.
Where you’ll find the successful expression of this balance is at the intersection of culture and the built environment.
The spectre of large, unoccupied and unsuitable office spaces looms large and fuels a sense of displacement during the pandemic. But what will it require to re-populate these offices, and to revive the businesses that normally thrive in their proximity by supporting them?
What Will Drive Positive Change?
What drives positive change in the built environment? Should designers and architects draw-up plans for innovative workspaces, or should change come from cultural shifts within the organisations that become their clients?

Ultimately, workplace brand cultures have to be willing to embrace the potential for new ways of doing things. This can then drive innovative solutions that serve the needs of end-users.
Obviously, there will be other, significant considerations that come into play. Not least the question of money.

But it’s important for enterprises and organisations not to squander the potential for lasting change.
Again, this is about striking the right balance: between the need to get back to a sense of normal; and the urge to explore the benefits of embedding change permanently in people’s working patterns.
Multi-faceted and Multi-dimensional
How we all work in the future shouldn’t be a binary choice between home or the office. What should drive change is a shift in the patterns of work, towards more sustainable and flexible models.

These models should be able to encompass both the remote and the office worker. They should move away from the notion of the fixed commute, but towards the potential of there being more than one place to work in.

It will be up to brands, businesses, organisations and institutions to embrace this flexibility once the pandemic has passed; but new concepts of working will find their most impactful and lasting expression through changes in the built environment itself.
Building Resilience into Change
Because developers, understandably, want to follow the money, what has tended to happen is that one form of innovation, say co-working, quickly leads to hundreds of similar schemes.

There are significant market leaders, such as WeWork, driving this momentum.
But then the co-working bubble bursts. The pandemic follows, and the co-working model looks a whole lot less viable than it once did. The object should be to build resilience into working spaces, by understanding how best to serve the needs of the end-user, and for these spaces to serve the needs of a new kind of working culture.
Beyond its fashionable surface, co-working, in principle, has plenty to offer more flexible ways of working. But the answer doesn’t lie with a wholesale adoption of one form over another.
Instead, there needs to be a weighing up of pros and cons. We should consider how to transform workspaces into more adaptable, multi-purpose models, which can as easily encompass more formal arrangements as informal ones.

Brands have different cultures, and they need working spaces that will work with, and reflect, these cultures. 

There needs to be room for remote working, but also the kind of close collaboration that enables innovation.
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