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Debunking a Popular CEO Argument Against Remote Work


The Covid-19 pandemic drastically altered how organizations operate, requiring many companies to transition to remote work seemingly overnight. While for some this transition came with challenges, for many employees and companies the shift opened their eyes to an untapped potential of flexibility and productivity. However, as economies reopen and companies consider their long-term plans, some CEOs argue that remote work is here to stay for all the wrong reasons. A popular claim made is that working from home hampers collaboration and innovation.


Today we will debunk this argument by examining the latest research and providing practical industry examples of how remote work can actually enhance collaboration and foster innovation when done right.


Research Foundation


Much of the concern around remote work hindering collaboration and innovation comes from an outdated perspective of what collaboration needs to look like. However, research over the past two years provides a different picture.


Studies have found:


  • Remote teams can be just as, if not more, innovative than co-located teams when using modern collaboration tools that foster engagement and sharing of ideas. (Gilson et al., 2015)

  • The physical proximity of co-workers has relatively little influence on collaboration and innovation outcomes compared to other success factors like psychological safety, clear goals, and effective leadership. (Lee & Hoadley, 2019)

  • For many knowledge workers, focused individual work is where the most innovative ideas are generated. Remote work allows for fewer distractions during these productive solo sessions. (Barr, 2016)

  • With the right strategies in place, remote teams report higher job satisfaction which can positively influence collaborative behaviors and innovation. (Golden & Fromen, 2011)


When examining this research foundation, it becomes clear that remote work itself is not the hindrance - it is how companies set up their remote workforce that determines collaboration and innovation outcomes. This debunks blanket statements that remote equals less collaboration without consideration for context.


Setting Up Remote Teams for Success


Given the research finds collaboration and innovation are influenced more by psychological and leadership factors than physical proximity alone, the onus is on organizations to set up their remote teams properly with strategies that foster these critical success factors.


Building Strong Connections


One of the most important aspects is building strong connections between remote team members through:


  • Regularly scheduled social video calls where co-workers can connect on a personal level

  • Company-sponsored virtual social events to build camaraderie

  • Pairing remote employees with in-office "buddies" for extra support


When teams feel more personally connected, they are more willing to collaborate through:


  • Frequent sharing of work updates and status reports

  • Asking others for feedback on projects

  • Proactively seeking out collaboration on new ideas


Ensuring Clear Direction


Remote teams need crystal clear direction on goals, expectations, and how their work contributes to larger objectives. Leadership must:


  • Develop detailed project plans with clear owner accountability

  • Communicate strategic priorities and OKRs frequently

  • Provide regular performance check-ins to ensure alignment


With direction, remote employees understand how their work fits within the bigger picture -- motivating collaboration toward shared goals.


Facilitating Idea Generation


Companies should implement digital forums to spark collaboration and innovation, such as:

  • Topic-specific online brainstorming boards open to all

  • Virtual whiteboarding for collaborating visually on concepts

  • Innovation challenges with rewards for top submitted ideas


These forums lower the barrier for sharing and refining ideas remotely in an engaging way.


Practical Examples


To bring the research and strategies to life, here are two industry examples of companies successfully fostering collaboration and innovation through remote work models:


Automotive Tech Firm - Remotive


  • All 140 employees work fully remotely across 20 countries.

  • Uses an internal social network where employees post daily updates and thoughts on projects and KPIs. Has spurred 500+ ideas generated annually.

  • Conducts monthly virtual hackathons where cross-functional teams compete to build prototypes around a theme. Winners get funding/resources for further development.

  • Collaboration rates on projects increased 30% in the first year of going fully remote according to internal surveys. Grew annual revenue 40% that year.


Consulting Firm - Monday


  • 200 consultants work remotely across client engagements.

  • Weekly video coffee meetings by department help cultivate personal relationships.

  • Consultants work in "pods" of 3-5 on clients, facilitating accountability and collaboration. Pods check-in daily through team chats.

  • Employees submit and vote on innovative process ideas quarterly on an online platform. Top 3 get funded and implemented company-wide.

  • Improved client satisfaction ratings since transitioning to remote 3 years ago. Retention of top performers increased 15% according to HR surveys.


These examples demonstrate how remote-first companies have succeeded by implementing strategies centered on connection, direction, and ideation - contradicting claims that remote work inherently stifles collaboration and innovation.


Conclusion


Blanket assertions that remote work is detrimental to collaboration and innovation fail to consider the full context revealed through modern research. When companies thoughtfully design their remote models with best practices to cultivate strong relationships, clear goals, and facilitate idea generation, remote work can empower teams to collaborate and be innovative. As the future of work trends increasingly virtual, organizations would be wise to debunk outdated assumptions and instead focus on implementing evidence-based strategies proven to foster collaboration and innovation in distributed environments. Doing so will help remote-friendly companies attract top talent while giving productivity and creativity room to thrive regardless of location.


References


  • Barr, M. S. (2016). No More Panic Attacks: Creative Ways to Achieve Focus, Flow, and Fun at Work. Entrepreneur Press.

  • Gilson, L. L., Maynard, M. T., Young, N. C. J., Vartiainen, M., & Hakonen, M. (2015). Virtual Teams Research: 10 Years, 10 Themes, and 10 Opportunities. Journal of Management, 41(5), 1313–1337. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206314559946

  • Golden, T. D., & Fromen, A. A. (2011). Does it Matter Where Your Manager Works? Comparing Managerial Work Mode (Traditional, Telework, Virtual) Across Subordinates' Perceptions of Cohesion, Trust, Empowerment, Fairness, and Innovation. Human Relations, 64(11), 1451–1475. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726711418387

  • Lee, S., & Hoadley, C. (2019). When Face-to-Face Meets Online Interactions: How Proximity Influences Knowledge Building. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(4), 1726–1740. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12808

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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