Innovation in the physical workspace is something we are all familiar with. Get the right mix of people in the right environment with the right process and big ideas begin to flow. But how well does innovation work in the digital workplace? With the start of the second lockdown this is a key question for us all.

The prognosis is not very positive: research from MIT has shown ‘successful innovators build a foundation of trust around micro-interactions that occur in the workplace’ and the Allen Curve warns that communication and collaboration decrease as distance increases. This is evidenced by the findings of a recent survey of 9,000 managers and employees across Europe from Boston Consulting Group and KRC Research, commissioned by Microsoft, which cites the loss of sense of purpose that comes from a distanced company culture as the likely cause behind faltering innovation. Last week the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane warned of the hidden long-term risks in prolonged remote working as well, declaring that working from home stifles creativity.

It isn’t all bad news, however. Raconteur suggests that, while historically innovation has been limited at home, the adoption of new technologies to conduct collaborative tasks can fill the gap in performance, and reference media agency Wavemaker, who are encouraging their staff worldwide to call five people a week who they would normally bump into in the office to engender the natural sparking of ideas that comes with an office environment. Mastercard have found success in evolving their four-to-five-day innovation sprints into shorter sprints held virtually using collaboration and video tools, and one of business school INSEAD’s suggestions is to use technologies that allow for real-time interaction to stimulate innovation, such as a virtual wall with sticky notes – and they advise that sustaining failure tolerance may be one of the biggest hurdles for innovation leaders today.

According to McKinsey, companies that invest in innovation through a crisis outperform peers during the recovery by upwards of 30%, and as we head into a second lockdown it is vital to protect your culture of idea generation. Despite the emergence of virtual innovation substitutes, the reality is that today there is no replacement for in-person experience. The winners in the post-COVID innovation race will be the companies who embrace the hybrid workplace, leveraging the role of new technology in turbo-charging remote working while guarding the role of the physical office in unlocking creativity and big ideas for the future.

Previous The A-Z of Post-Covid Working: Homeworking Support
Next Virtual offices explained