While it was a public health emergency that drove the adoption of remote work, the same technologies that enabled new ways to ideate and collaborate out of necessity have led to some surprising benefits.
In videoconferencing, all faces are in boxes of the same size, regardless of seniority. Virtual communication tools gave introverts more opportunities to be heard. Neurodivergent people or people with disabilities, for whom office work may have created anxiety or physical challenges, suddenly could participate on their own terms. And all this opened the door to greater innovation.
According to the study “The Era of Hyper-Innovation,” 93 percent of executives say the rise of digital collaboration has amplified more diverse voices, culminating in richer ideas. And now that hybrid work is becoming the norm, the vast majority of executives think that equality is likely to increase and collaboration will continue and spur an era of hyper-innovation.
To take advantage of this, executives will have to let go of some deep-seated perceptions and think differently about where and how they work.
Believing does not mean seeing
Proximity bias, or the tendency to favor those we see more often, is one of the biggest obstacles to equality and innovation in the hybrid workplace. It’s not new. Research shows that before the pandemic, employees who sat closer to executives may have had more opportunities for advancement. And according to a Stanford University study, many managers still view employees who sit face-to-face as more dedicated and better-performing workers, and give them more promotions, perks and other opportunities.
But proximity bias does not have to set in. With the support of the right technologies and workplace policies, it can be overcome. Among the measures executives can take are the following:
- Ensure that face-to-face and remote employees have equal time with managers. Whether employee meetings are planned or ad hoc, track them and develop a system to ensure that each group receives the same level of attention.
- Develop objective performance measures based on results, not visibility. This will help reduce the power of proximity bias when evaluating employees for assignments, promotions and bonuses.
- Facilitate bonding experiences in which everyone can participate. Talk with employees to understand how they want to build stronger relationships with their peers. Consider creating virtual “break rooms” where employees can log in to chat. Or work with employees to form virtual interest groups or clubs.
Technology should liberate, not frustrate
To harness the innovative potential of distributed employees, organizations must adopt solutions that take the frustration out of work and enable them to collaborate with colleagues easily and effectively, whether they are working from home, in the office, on the road or elsewhere.
- Embrace digitization. Digitize all documentation and workflows to ensure equitable and high-impact collaboration. Adopting a cloud-based digital workspace solution that serves as a unified hub for collaboration can help with this process.
- Establish guidelines to support equitable use. If an employee is remote, consider having the entire meeting virtual to create a more level playing field for their participation.
- Conduct an IT audit to compare the remote experience with the onsite experience. Identify gaps between those experiences using surveys, focus groups and IT tickets, then develop an action plan to close them.
- Invest in tools that enable synchronous as well as asynchronous collaboration. Synchronous collaboration tools, such as Zoom or Teams, are important. But equally important for innovation are tools that allow employees to do “deep work” alone or contribute to the team on flexible schedules, wherever they are. Provide both types.
Beware of the digital divide
Executives are optimistic about the potential of hybrid work to drive companies to hyper-innovate, with good reason. But the model is not without risk. Without careful implementation, it can create a new digital divide that, if not contained, could generate two classes of workers and bring inequity and bias to the workspace.
To bridge the digital divide that hybrid work threatens to create, companies need to implement technologies and work policies that provide an equitable environment where remote and onsite employees can participate equally and collaborate transparently and efficiently. A shared digital workspace, for example, provides a common and transparent environment where teams have uniform access to applications and information and can collaborate on projects to get work done from anywhere.
Innovation is not an inevitable consequence of hybrid work. It comes from giving employees the space they need to do their best work, on their own terms. Executives who understand this and adapt to achieve it can foster such environments and help their employees, and ultimately their companies, to innovate and succeed.