Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which helps forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, his newest book is Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. We asked Dr. Tsipursky how leaders can emulate the spontaneity of in-person employee idea generation for hybrid and remote teams. Here’s what he shared:
When leaders weigh the pros and cons of remote teams versus in-person work, one topic of concern is the water cooler effect.
In office environments, employees from different departments often run into each other, spark conversations about their individual projects, and spontaneously generate what could be game-changing ideas for the company.
“I don’t see how we can replace the serendipitous idea generation 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,” chief product officer of a 1,500-employee enterprise software company, told me at his company’s planning meeting on the post-vaccine return to office.
I told Saul that 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.
The problem was that while leaders tried to pursue innovation during 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 that action represents.
Employee survey results show that 25 to 35 percent of employees want remote work only and 50-65 percent want to return to the office with a hybrid schedule of a day or two onsite. And 40 to 55 percent felt ready to quit if they didn’t get their preferred schedules, and indeed many have resigned when employers tried to force them to return. To put it mildly, it’s hard to innovate when a large part of your workforce quits, and the rest are demoralized due to high turnover rates.
In-person serendipitous idea generation
Many leaders deployed traditional methods to facilitate serendipitous conversations during lockdowns. These included encouraging such conversations among team members, 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 leaders soon discovered—are simply transposing in-office practices on the virtual environment. They don’t work for something as spontaneous as serendipitous innovation.
Virtual serendipitous idea generation
How can leaders foster the beneficial, accidental collaborations teams once enjoyed in person—for their remote or hybrid teams?
To succeed, leaders must adopt a native virtual format to tap into the underlying motivations that facilitate the creativity, spontaneity and collaboration behind serendipitous innovation. This means creating a specific venue for it and incentivizing collaboration without forcing it.
For example, organizations using Microsoft Teams would have each team create 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 with the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You’ll find that the optimists 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 original ideas, pointing out potential flaws and offering tweaks and solutions that help to address them.
If you want to gain an innovation advantage in the future of work, avoid the tendency to stick to pre-pandemic innovation methodology. Best practices for innovation in the return to office—such as serendipitous idea generation—will enable your remote and hybrid teams to gain a competitive advantage.