Disclaimer: This article is published in partnership with Siemens. Siemens is paying for my engagement, not for promotional purpose. Opinions are my own.
The Covid-19 crisis has forced the adoption of new, digital ways of working. Organizations had to migrate their work forces to work-from-home (WFH) and remote models in an unprecedented short time span. McKinsey has found the pandemic to have dramatically accelerated digital adoption:
- Organizations shifted to remote working 40x faster than pre-crisis assumptions.
- Time needed to implement functional remote working: 1 year expectation vs. 11 days reality.
- Proportion of executives believing changes to remote model will stick has increased by 54%.
Across industries, companies will draw on the lessons from this large-scale experiment to reimagine the Future of Work incl. appropriate working models and what role offices should play in this future. Reconstructing processes and practices will serve as a foundation of improved operating models that leverage the best of both in-person and remote work.
This was also the key topic of a roundtable during this year’s Web Summit, hosted by Siemens’ Elisa Rönkä, Head of Digital Market Development at Siemens Smart Infrastructure. Ahead of this roundtable, some members of the Siemens Influencer Community (short: SIEx) exchanged ideas with Elisa in a Twitter chat, titled: How will you be working in 2025? (please follow the hashtag #FutureWorkChat).
Some key questions we were discussing:
- What have been the learnings of this work-from-home experiment so far?
- Which opportunities – but also shortcomings – have become apparent?
- And which conclusions can be drawn in respect to appropriate working models for the future?
To put it in a nutshell: there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer will be different for every organization, based on the business and geographies it operates in, what talent is needed, which roles are most important and what/how much collaboration is necessary, among other factors.
Key learnings of the large-scale remote work experiment
A major learning has certainly been: migrating a workforce to a WFH environment and the quick adoption of digital collaboration technologies have been better than imagined pre-crisis. On a positive note, WFH has been more effective and efficient than previously expected – mainly for established work processes and familiar work contexts. Moreover, rental costs can be saved, commuting can be slashed and high flexibility to work and recruit from virtually anywhere is provided. However, WFH also comes along with some ‘lowlights’, incl. work-life issues or limitations when it comes to tasks drawing on more spontaneous or serendipitous interactions, such as creativity and innovation.
Elisa Rönkä weighs in on this point: Collaboration is one of the topics that pop up as a limitation of WFH, and the collaboration requiring virtual means can easily result in Zoom Fatigue. Balance is everything – having the right place for the right activity at the right time.
As organizations reconstruct how they work, they can make decisions about which roles must be carried out in person, and to what extent. Organizations could then create workspaces specifically designed to support these roles and the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely. Future offices could be repurposed to accommodate specific collaboration, rather than individual work. In essence, a perfect workplace supports a worker’s individual work profile by seamlessly combining in-person and virtual environments.
Personalization on scale is a very interesting topic – and very much doable with technology! Creating environments that adapt to individual preferences in terms of comfort and productivity and which get rid of unnecessary friction points. – Elisa Rönkä
One of the most central findings has been: while productivity has remained stable or even increased for most companies that shifted to remote work, innovation seems to have taken a hit. Why is that? The million-dollar-question is: can companies effectively innovate in virtual environments?
Innovation erosion in a virtual work environment
Innovative work used to involve fast feedback and free-flowing exchange of ideas that happen in person – taking many meetings as well as informal water cooler discussions. Virtual meetings, on the other hand, tend to be much more performative and ‘polished’, thus being prone to thwart innovation.
Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) sheds light on another critical factor determining innovation erosion. ONA experts, like Michael Arena, distinguish between bonding and bridging connections in a healthy network:
- Bonding connections: represented by small, distinct teams (gray clusters in figure below) that are able to move fast and collaborate productively.
- Bridging connections: represented by the connections across those teams (cyan connections in figure).
For an organizational network to be healthy in balancing productivity and innovation, both forms of connections are necessary. When combined, bridging and bonding connections enable the three phases of innovation: Idea generation, Incubation and Scaling. While bonding connections enable the incubation and development of ideas, bridging connections significantly contribute to generating them and scaling resulting innovations across the broader organization.
For an organization to stay innovative, it must be constantly active in all three phases. This calls for both forms of connections. The problem: research has found that bonding connections are much easier to generate than bridging connections. What’s more, bridging connections are far more fragile and susceptible to quickly eroding. Recent studies found that employees communicated markedly less with more distant colleagues after shift to remote work. At the same time, communication has significantly increased with close colleagues. The result: decay of bridging connections hampers innovation in a virtual environment – in particular when it comes to idea generation and scaling up innovations.
Now, what can be done to limit bridge erosion in virtual working environments? Michael Arena gives the following advice:
For one, we must be far more intentional and repetitive in nurturing bridging relationships as building up trust takes much more time than in physical environments. For another, let’s make more unstructured time in the agendas for virtual water cooler conversations to happen. Briefly put: artificially create serendipity!
Takeaway: Remote work is here to stay – but is yet to get along with innovation
The Future of Work will encompass hybrid working models combining virtual remote and physical office work. Appropriate models will be highly specific to individual organizations and worker profiles. When it comes to innovation, a great extent of intentionality and repetitiveness will be key in virtual environments to build critical relationships and maintain network integrity.
What’s your opinion? Do Innovation and the Future of Work get along with one another? I look forward to your comments!