One of the biggest ways to derail innovation is to be bound by orthodoxies which block the ability to recognize fresh possibilities. People who challenge orthodoxies are able, objectively, to question deeply held assumptions. As a result, they’re more likely to find new answers and approaches that overcome constraints — which often turn out to be self-imposed.

These people start by asking the question, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” They avoid imposing the filters of what they already know, which prevent good ideas from being seen and valued.

The problem many leaders are trying to solve now is, “Given the profound pandemic-induced disruption we’re experiencing, how can we expand and accelerate our capacity to innovate, especially when so many employees are working from home?” The urgency around answering this question in the retail sector is acute, as the signals are already upon us that those who failed to keep up until now, and who do not adapt quickly enough, will not survive.

A great big orthodoxy about how innovation happens is that physical proximity among team members is critical. Physical proximity allows for relationship building, reciprocal trust, and the serendipitous hallway chats and after-meeting conversations that are fertile starting ground for the new ideas and random thoughts that are beginning points for innovation. How, in the new world of work, where among nonessential workers a majority are currently expressing a preference to work from home and are opting to do so, will companies innovate? Will innovation effectiveness decline at the very moment when it’s even more essential?

As a former corporate chief innovation officer, I’ve had to shake myself free of the physical proximity orthodoxy. Now that I’ve done that, here are recommendations on ways to strengthen an organization’s innovation execution muscle in a largely work-from-home world. Innovation can be cultivated among a distributed team, if driven by a fresh mindset, including a willingness to adopt new practices. The conditions that enable innovation are exactly the same no matter where team members are located; the specifics of execution will be different in this new environment.

The Basic Conditions in Any Workplace for Fostering Innovation

Irrespective of where employees are located, innovation requires these basic conditions to thrive:

  • A senior executive accountable for creating innovation-friendly conditions in the new environment
  • Employee understanding that innovation is vital to the business’ success, and how they’re each expected to help by being advocates and enablers
  • Employee awareness of the innovation strategy and priorities, and why they matter, so they have the contextual framing to contribute effectively as problem solvers
  • A culture of curiosity, continuous learning, collaboration among diverse people, and where failure is treated as learning — not reason for punishment — permeates the organization and is represented throughout, starting in the CEO’s behavior and messaging

How can these conditions be fostered in a work-from-home environment? Here are three areas for action:

  1. Revisit talent strategy assumptions.

    • Especially in its early stages, innovation is full of uncertainty and unpredictability. Without the immediate support system of office mates to encourage progress, consider the importance of helping your team strengthen their abilities to self-organize, manage through ambiguity, and operate independently.
    • Address the ways in which the requirements of an effective remote innovation capability will affect candidate profiles for new positions. What new skills are required? Are others now less important?
    • Take advantage of the new-found geographic flexibility to increase hiring diversity. Diverse teams have a huge innovation advantage; they’re often better problem solvers and are able to see things differently, unlocking opportunities that a homogeneous team is likely to miss.
    • Innovation is fueled by continuous learning. What learning and development (L&D) opportunities should be available to foster creativity and the discovery of unmet customer needs and emerging trends? An easy tactic is to invite external guest speakers from other sectors, such as experts in technology advances, trends or other topics in the wide-ranging areas that could stimulate fresh thinking, fight isolation, and push a greater external focus.
  1. Adopt practices that support what innovators love about shared, away-from-home workspaces.

    • Require (or at least encourage) team members to schedule a few conversations every week with colleagues who they might otherwise have bumped into at the office, and with whom they’re not engaged on projects. Explain how this helps individual performance, and role model the behavior.
    • Some companies are going further, scheduling brief random “buddy chats” between people who are not working together.
    • Innovators need time and headspace; breakthroughs don’t happen on a timeclock or in a stale, unchanging environment. Encourage employees to take breaks, go for a walk, get to a tranquil space where their mind can de-clutter and they can simply be.
    • Encourage employees to find their primary, ideal time block when they’re their creative best, and be purposeful about how they spend that time every day.
  1. Create opportunities that encourage employees to engage in the innovation agenda.

    • Tell people through town hall and other internal communications where the business sees innovation opportunities and create structured, team-based activities for them to problem solve and be recognized for their contributions. These can include innovation challenges or even hackathons, both of which can be done with remote tools.
    • Establish and maintain a searchable database of employee profiles that include a section on “What I’m Working on Now.” House it on the company portal so that all employees can access it and keep their profile up-to-date. Include a private messaging capability so that employees can reach out to each other to offer or request help.
    • Encourage all employees to keep up-to-date profiles on LinkedIn so others can understand their backgrounds, skills and experience when they’re looking for expertise.
    • Consider setting up a virtual “idea market” where employees can contribute, swap and build upon each other’s ideas. Innovation rarely comes from a single moment of genius. The great ones are an assemblage of idea fragments that come together through iterative concept development, testing and experimentation. Avoid the notion of a suggestion box — this must be a dynamic place where employees can go to explore, pool, contribute and build upon each other’s inspirations.
    • Showcase employees’ innovation efforts, including work-in-progress, customer insight findings, successes and failures. Recognize the work people are doing to help the business innovate. For example, give them space to share their stories and what they’ve learned so the rest of the organization can benefit as well and be inspired by their efforts.

Innovation is messy, especially compared with the standards of the old world of work. It’s a process of discovery, testing, experimentation, iterating, failing and trying again. Innovating how employees innovate in a work-from-home environment will feature all of these elements. Success will come by staying focused on creating the right conditions, listening and observing carefully for feedback on what’s working and what’s not working, refining continuously, and celebrating the wins along the way to creating the new workplace.