Charlotte Rush17 August 2020

How to build a culture of innovation when 80% of your workforce is working from home

The date is 9 March, 2020. I walk into my co-working office and I am immediately bombarded with signals about the culture of said-coworking space, and by association, my organisation. The decor is full of natural light, bright colours and interesting artwork. The Spotify playlist rotates from “hip-office vibes” to “90s RnB”. I’ve said hello to my friends at reception and will chat with them about the weekend later today.

Fast forward to today. When I walk into my office/study, I turn the heater on to defrost the room from the night before. There’s no aroma of coffee from a barista, and instead of sweet background tunes, I’ve got neighbours’ kids being sent to school mixed with the local leaf blower. Without even knowing it, I am starting my day on the cultural backfoot.

When working remotely, you no longer have the gift of carefully curated office environmental cues to ‘nudge’ people towards being innovative. So, how do you build a culture of innovation when 80% of your workforce is working from home?

Leaders need to be more intentional about how their interactions – in meetings, one-on-ones or via email – will influence the cultural norms of teams. Instead of relying on implicit cues, or leaving culture to chance, use these strategies to deliberately cultivate a culture of innovation, remotely:

  1. Rewrite the behaviours tied to your values, remote-working style.

Assuming your organisation has values linked to innovation, and clear behaviours that demonstrate those values, how do employees demonstrate those values now that they are working remotely? For example, diversity (in terms of thinking and ideas) is important for driving innovation. A behaviour to drive this on a daily basis might be the “Yes, and…” rule-of-thumb from improvisation. This encourages the exploration of lots of ideas and is a behaviour that is clearly demonstrable in virtual, remote conversations.

Reviewing your values and the behaviours tied to them, to ensure they are ‘remote-work’ appropriate is one way in which you can help your people to build a culture of innovation from their own daily behaviours.

  1. Run virtual “caves”

According to research, the most impactful driver of innovation culture is cohesion – where all employees feel a sense of togetherness. While we can’t be together physically, who says we can’t work together virtually?

Caveday is an organisation that runs (virtual) sessions to help individuals focus and do their best, deepest work. My team has recently started trialing virtual “caves” whereby we work individually on important tasks concurrently via Zoom. One team member facilitates – deciding the length of each sprint and exercises to boost energy. We’ve found an important outcome is a boost in the sense of accountability and togetherness – people are feeling more connected and motivated to work on important tasks, especially when they know their team is working alongside them.

  1. Capture and share learnings

Another important driver of an innovation culture is openness to failure. Reframing failure as an opportunity to learn is a great way to encourage the risk-taking necessary for innovation. At Inventium, we have a learning database that is full of learnings captured from experiments in one-page summaries. Included in this are details of the hypothesis, what we did, results and what we learned. It is not uncommon for our Head of Digital to share these learnings in weekly team meetings.

Encouraging teams to write down and share learnings for all to see is one way to encourage your people to actively look for opportunities to take risks and learn in pursuit of innovation.

  1. Schedule regular “Come Clean” ceremonies

In a remote working environment, it is challenging for team leaders to keep an eye on team dynamics. No longer can leaders walk around the office to get a ‘sense-check’ of how people are feeling. Instead, organisations need to take a more proactive approach to ensure employees have the opportunity to voice concerns, opinions and feedback.

At Method, employees share their feedback on how the organisation is (or isn’t) living their values and delivering on strategy in a quarterly, anonymous “Come Clean” survey. This is followed by a town hall where the CEO will discuss the results and address where they might be falling down. This open-forum encourages debate, feedback and transparency and, in a remote environment this regular process is just one way to ensure people feel heard.

By adopting these four simple strategies, you can nudge your employees towards a culture of innovation. The most important thing, however, is not to leave it to chance. In a virtual world, you must be more deliberate and explicit in creating your team’s cultural norms.