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How Does Telecommuting Change Startup Innovation?

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By Jack Tai, CEO and co-founder of OneClass.

The shift to telecommuting during Covid-19 has created an innovation problem. 

Productivity has remained high, and 82% of remote teams report high productivity after switching to remote work. However, the rate of innovation dropped 16 percentage points compared to last year. 

Maintaining innovation while telecommuting is especially important for startups. Brainstorming and creativity help young companies disrupt industries, make a splash with consumers and solve consumer needs.

Yet Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom says, “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth.”

To be fair, the shift in work location from physical offices to telecommuting is only one factor that could be dampening innovation during Covid-19. Workers are also experiencing increased stress, health concerns, household disruptions and additional responsibilities, such as remote schooling during the workday.

Even during these workplace challenges, startups that maintain innovation pipelines have a strong advantage. Rapid economic changes have created new business opportunities where innovators can come out ahead by meeting new consumer needs.

Without the physical spaces where collaboration and innovation naturally occur, how will innovation continue? Below we’ll dig into the three ways that startups can continue to foster an innovative work culture while telecommuting. 

1. Use design thinking for better remote collaboration.

Collaboration is one of the hallmarks of an innovative startup. 

While digital platforms can provide collaboration technology, it’s up to the users to decide how they want to use them. To promote innovation, startups can use these apps to go beyond linear productivity cycles and traditional productivity metrics. 

Instead, technology can be used for the iterative process of design thinking. Innovative startups are creating digital spaces for focused collaboration and the cyclical nature of innovation. This ultimately leads to more aha moments.

One way to build better digital collaboration and innovation is to schedule online hackathons or ideation sessions. Whether collaborating on the big problems of the industry or a side project, these sprints help oil the machinery of team problem-solving and collaboration. 

2. Recreate happenstance with digital communication.

In many cases, interactions in a physical workspace rely on happenstance to fuel innovation. There are informal hallway chats or impromptu meetings. These causal interactions build trust, camaraderie and the framework for innovation. 

Without the casual happenstance that occurs when working together in person, remote teams can maintain camaraderie and creativity by integrating informal communication into the workday. Even when teams are gathered around a digital watercooler, the free-form conversations lay the groundwork for innovation culture. 

Startups have implemented this in a variety of ways. Some managers have scheduled open-door sessions where teammates can informally connect with leaders and build rapport. Other companies are building micro-interactions into the workweek by prompting staff to randomly connect with five other teammates to say hello and find out what other people are working on. 

Another option is to have a portion of a department meeting without an agenda so there’s the freedom for unstructured dialogue. And of course, a companywide #random channel on Slack can play a role similar to the company cafeteria. 

Remember that trust and communication are critical for innovation and creativity. Even if managers only see cat memes being shared between co-workers, know that these non-work-related posts can unify your team so you have the framework to achieve measurable results.

3. Reinvent startup culture with digital immersion.

The buzz of startup culture is about immersion and excitement. Teams are hungry to achieve great things and make an impact. 

When working remotely, startups need to find ways to support the same level of immersion and enthusiasm. 

This type of immersion can be difficult during the pandemic when travel and group gatherings are discouraged. However, remote workers can still get the benefit of immersion through a digital company retreat or by attending company-sponsored workshops. Initiatives that promote digital immersion keep energy high and ideas flowing. 

In the future, as the pandemic subsides and travel becomes possible again, remote companies can schedule in-person immersion opportunities. Even if the majority of work is done remotely, in-person immersion opportunities such as a company retreat or all-staff meeting can shake up workplace monotony to allow for intensive development and ideation sessions.


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