Can Remote Teams Be Innovative? - Deepstash
Argument against remote work

The argument is that while remote employees may be more personally productive, the team creativity and innovation suffer. People really need spontaneous interactions at the water cooler or break room or at happy hours to foster serendipity that drives innovation.

People who support the Office-Serendipity Theory of Innovation like to cite Jobs' views to support the idea that "most people should work in an office." But the theory suffers from anecdotal evidence of chance office encounters.

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Leaders who say remote teams can't be innovative fail to see the potential problem as a starting point for innovation.

Logic also would suggest that early adopters of remote work are indeed more likely to be innovative and open to new ideas and ways of working.

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  • One research-backed argument favouring co-located teams is that teams are more collaboratively efficient and solve problems faster.
  • An article covering IBM's move to shutter their remote workforce in 2017 states that business today is more like a series of emergencies that needs to be diagnosed and then receive a quick-and-dirty solution, get feedback, course-correct, and repeat. But a team in constant reactive mode is neither productive nor innovative.
  • Instead of optimizing for workforces that respond to emergencies, companies should be optimizing for workforces that limit emergencies.

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The kind of asynchronous communication embraced by many remote-first teams allows for more thought-out responses, fewer interruptions, and more focused work.

But when emergencies happen, remote teams need systems and protocols in place to handle them efficiently. Even here, remote teams are often still better as they always have people awake during working hours to deal with problems.

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Remote work opens companies up to a literal world of new talent - people from other towns, states, countries, and continents.

Research shows that groups representing a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, bring unique information and experiences to bear and are consequently more innovative.

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In 2012, Google found that psychological safety was the most important to making a team succeed, not the smartest teams or the ones who socialized outside the office. Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. The team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

Remote-first teams embrace values of trust and transparency out of necessity. Trust and transparency make people feel respected, valued, and safe to voice dissenting opinions. Teammates can read of people challenging ideas and presenting new viewpoints and having their perspective acknowledged. It gives them the confidence to do the same.

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  • Some of the most innovative software projects are open-source, developed remotely and asynchronously, such as the Linux kernel. As of 2017, roughly 15,600 developers from all over the world had contributed to the kernel.
  • In 1962, "Freelance Programmers" was founded. The work-from-home contract programming company was instrumental in helping develop software standards, management control protocols, and other standards that were eventually adopted by NATO.
  • Automatic, the company behind WordPress, is fully distributed with 1,335 employees in 77 countries speaking 99 different languages.
  • Remote-first companies GitLab and Zapier are currently valued at US$6 billion and US$4 billion with 1,289 and 350 employees, respectively.

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Remote work isn't perfect and won't be a good fit for everyone. It can be lonely and feel awkward connecting with new coworkers. With an emphasis on results over time spent working, remote workers also tend to work longer hours. Remote workers can consist of diverse or uniform teams, positive or toxic cultures, innovative or stagnant remote teams.

Remote teams need to be proactive in creating opportunities for people to get to know one another. They need to help employees craft their workdays to fit their needs.

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