Does teleworking harm innovation?

Mon 19 Oct 2020

Mass teleworking is like freediving

When lockdown began, the move to teleworking was a bit like freediving. We jumped head first into the unknown and, against all expectations, discovered that we could last the distance.

Most of our projects made progress and the teams adapted. We learned that we could surpass ourselves and perform even better than if we had been at the office. Who would have thought it?

Today, 84%[1] of us want to continue teleworking, even after the Covid-19 crisis. A choice that might be encouraged by employers, as teleworking can increase productivity by 13%[2].

We’ve removed everything informal about work

We’ve risen to the challenge of this serious health and business situation and many people have even been working even harder than usual. We’ve taken our task very seriously, too seriously perhaps, as this hasn’t happened without some damage. The other side of the coin is the damage to our psychological health (+31%), with an increase in stress and mental workload. Work has taken on a stricter, more rigid aspect, and those moments of spontaneous, friendly discussion have gone, taking on a colder, more serious overtone, especially for those who are keen to protect their jobs.

Among the many causes of this lockdown stress, let’s focus on the counterbalance that we used to rely on: informal moments with our colleagues. Yes, we miss our colleagues and we’re not talking about long meetings but those coffee breaks, lunchtimes and chats in the corridor after a meeting.

We’re not saying that the 31% decline in psychological health all boils down to the lack of a coffee break, but let’s examine this in more depth. Let’s try and understand how these seemingly trivial discussions are an integral part of each person’s job. They are much more than a way of letting off steam, and we must keep them up at all costs, even remotely.

Serendipity: the link between formal and informal at work

First of all, we need to look in the rear view mirror. What are the best ideas we have had at work in the last 12 months? How did the idea start? Most likely during an informal discussion; probably in the break room or at someone’s leaving drinks. Is it the innovative power of caffeine or cookies? No, it’s serendipity.

Serendipity could also be called “lucky chance”. It’s when you make an unexpected discovery during a research process. Many big (and small) discoveries have been made thanks to serendipity, such as Viagra, which was discovered during research into blood pressure, the Post-it note during research into glue and Velcro, which came from burdock burrs stuck to a dog’s coat.

What’s the link between innovation and Viagra? In order to innovate, the brain needs to be free to roam. You can’t do it alone in your makeshift office set up in a corner of the lounge. You need to go out, break the rhythm, create a favorable climate for the unexpected. What you are really missing are those accidental meetings and discussions. This link between the formal and informal is THE place where serendipity occurs.

We achieve more when we’re teleworking as we don’t have a break when we can just socialize. We’ve cleared our days of coffee breaks and discussions at the water cooler. Our working day is now no more than a sequence of production tasks, making us perform more efficiently in the short term. However, having our “nose to the grindstone” necessarily makes us less innovative in the long term.

Serendipity is much more than a lever for innovation

As a manager, it’s important to convey the message “give importance to informal discussions between yourselves” along with “I’m open to your ideas to help the team develop”, as this will create a favorable breeding ground for serendipity. Your staff will understand that they are more than simple performers judged on their performance, as the meaning given to their work makes them stakeholders, not just spectators of the team’s development. This responds to their need for autonomy while establishing a feeling of belonging.

The challenges around wellbeing at work and our capacity to reinvent ourselves are too significant to sideline the benefits that serendipity can bring.

How can we maintain serendipity when teleworking is the norm?

The key thing is not to snatch away those moments of sociability: make sure that coming to the office has a sociable element to it. For example, redesign the workspaces and rest areas, adapt the tasks and workload according to the workplace (less production and more discussion), and create more events through internal communication, etc. Our Skype drinks with our friends during lockdown have shown us that it’s possible to keep up relationships remotely. At Sofrecom, some teams have created 15 minute breaktimes during which several members played Uno online. For other creative ideas, have confidence in your team and their creative abilities, you won’t be disappointed.

[1] Malakoff Humanis Study

[2] Stanford University Study

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Morgane Leblanc

Change Management Senior Consultant