How to build a hybrid model that strengthens — not stifles —innovation

Breaking down barriers to innovation starts with some of the same technologies and tactics that have made hybrid work scalable.

REPORT | 5m read
October 22, 2021

The shift to remote work in early 2020 may have been sparked by a public health emergency, but it also introduced a number of surprising benefits. One of the most significant? The emergence of a more equitable work experience.

The same technologies that unlocked new ways to ideate and collaborate also turned traditional power dynamics on their head. Video meetings put every face in the same-sized box, regardless of seniority. Virtual communication tools gave introverts more opportunities to be heard. Neurodiverse and disabled employees, for whom office work might have introduced anxiety or physical challenges, suddenly could participate on their own terms.

These benefits registered with business leaders, too, as new research from Fieldwork by Citrix shows. According to “The Era of Hyper-Innovation” report, 93% of business leaders said that increased digital collaboration amplified more diverse voices, resulting in richer idea generation. Now, as the world transitions to hybrid work, the vast majority expect enhanced equity and collaboration to fuel an era of hyper-innovation.

But at the same time, three-quarters of leaders fear the emergence of a two-tiered system, in which in-person employees are privileged over their remote counterparts. To thrive in this new world, leaders must proactively create a level playing field for all employees, no matter where or how they work.

Unleash innovation by combating proximity bias

Proximity bias is one of the greatest obstacles to equity and innovation in the hybrid workplace. This phenomenon refers to our unconscious tendency to favor those we see most often. Think about it this way: Who comes to mind when you imagine treating a colleague to lunch — the person who sits near you every day, or the one you've only seen a few times during a virtual meeting?

Proximity bias is nothing new; before the pandemic, employees sitting closer to leaders may have enjoyed more opportunities for advancement. But if implemented incorrectly, hybrid working threatens to exacerbate this phenomenon  — especially if leadership is more likely to sit in the office. Research  suggests that managers may see in-person employees as harder workers and higher performers, and grant them more promotions, bonuses, and other opportunities. 

Even more alarmingly, proximity bias can heighten existing disparities, disproportionately affecting groups of employees more likely to work from home, such as women with children and disabled employees.

Here are some actions you can take to combat proximity bias and champion innovation:

  • Ensure in-person and remote employees get equal time with managers. Whether meetings with employees are planned or ad-hoc, managers should keep track of them, and create a system to ensure each group is getting equal attention.
  • Develop objective performance metrics rooted in outcomes, not visibility. This will help reduce the power of proximity bias when evaluating employees for assignments, promotions, and bonuses.
  • Facilitate bonding experiences that everyone can participate in. Talk with your employees to figure out how they want to build stronger relationships with co-workers. Consider creating virtual “break rooms” where employees can drop in for a water cooler chat. Or work with employees to form virtual interest groups or clubs.

Empower with tech that sparks innovation

By forcing organizations to find new ways to operate and collaborate, the transition to remote work has spurred innovation. Fieldwork’s report found that companies attributed almost half of their growth (45%) over the last financial year to innovation, translating to an estimated $678bn boost in revenue. Of all the factors driving innovation, the adoption of new technology had the greatest impact on growth.

But hybrid models complicate collaboration, putting new demands on IT. Without the right tech and IT policies in place, remote employees risk being silenced — a situation that could slow the free flow of ideas that is so critical to innovation.

To harness the innovative potential of their employees, organizations must adopt tech that frees teams to collaborate just as well from the bedroom as from the boardroom. And they must establish norms around its use to ensure that new tech isn’t just a band-aid, but a true solution.

Getting there requires significant investment. “The Era of Hyper-Innovation” report notes that 70% of business leaders plan to roll out new IT tools and infrastructure over the next 12 months, and 64% are experimenting with cutting-edge technology like AR and VR to enhance collaboration in their hybrid workforces.

Though developing the right hybrid tech strategy takes time, there are some key considerations you can make to set your organization up for success:

  • Go completely digital. Digitize all of your documentation and workflows to ensure equitable, impactful collaboration. Moving to a cloud-based digital workspace solution that serves as a unified hub for collaboration can help with this process. 
  • Establish policies around tech that support equitable use. For example, if one employee is remote, run the entire meeting virtually to create a more level playing field for participation.
  • Conduct an IT audit to compare the remote and in-person experience. Using surveys, focus groups, and IT tickets, identify gaps in your IT stack. Then, make an action plan based on your findings.
  • Invest in tools that allow for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. Synchronous collaboration tools, like Zoom or Teams, are important. But equally important for innovation are tools that enable employees to do solo deep work or contribute to the team on their own time, wherever they may be. Make sure your IT stack provides for both types of collaboration.

Discover what employees need to innovate

As we enter the era of hybrid work, your most valuable resource is also one of your most accessible: your employees. Putting formal listening strategies in place to learn what employees need to innovate, while actively building a culture that welcomes feedback, is key — especially given the gap between the pandemic experience of leadership and their employees.

Consider this: four out of five business leaders surveyed in the Fieldwork by Citrix report said the pandemic gave them more time to be creative. Meanwhile, employees suffered from a surge in burnout as the lines between home and work dissolved.

Emerging from this time of crisis, employees want a workplace that’s more responsive to their needs — and increasingly, they’re leaving organizations that can't deliver. At minimum, taking time to improve the employee experience can improve retainment. But organizations that champion employee experience can engage and encourage their workforce to innovate.

Here are some actions you can take gain a deeper understanding of the employee experience at your organization: 

  • Have regular check-ins at all levels to discuss what’s working, and what’s not. From one-on-ones with managers to office hours with executives, create lines of communication at all levels where people feel comfortable giving honest feedback.
  • Lead by example. A culture of open communication starts at the top. As a leader, demonstrate openness to giving and receiving feedback. 
  • Implement a continuous listening strategy. Launch regular engagement surveys to understand barriers to innovation, along with shorter, more frequent surveys and focus groups to hone in on timely issues. Make sure that you’re prepared to take action based on what you find. Feedback without action can hurt employee morale and decrease participation in the feedback process. 

Making good on hybrid’s promise

Business leaders are optimistic about the potential of hybrid work to send innovation into hyperdrive, but enhanced innovation isn’t an inevitable consequence of hybrid work. Hybrid can stifle innovation through inequity and poor collaboration, or it can unleash innovation by giving each employee more space to do their best work, on their terms. Leaders that understand this will help usher in the promised era of hyper-innovation — and thrive in it.

REPORT

The Era of Hyper-Innovation: How business leaders expect corporate creativity to reach new heights in the post-pandemic period

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