Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Box, Slack, and Salesforce all say that employees can keep working remotely well into next year or even forever. We’re seeing a sea change toward remote work and how to make it more fun and effective. But what happens to the culture of teams and organizations in a virtual world?
In my latest book, The Invisible Advantage: How to Create a Culture of Innovation, I define culture as “the norms and values that shape behavior.” If you want to change culture to get more innovation, for example, you need to change norms and values toward things that inspire people to generate ideas, prioritize the best ones, test them out, and implement them using customer input. So how do you do that when you’re working remotely and it’s impossible to gather around the water cooler?
To change norms and values, you need to first change your own behavior, since our behavior is what ultimately communicates and reinforces what’s important. If you want more innovation, you need to do things that demonstrate you’re serious about soliciting ideas and doing something with them.
Here are six things you can do to get more innovation from your remote team in today’s virtual world:
1. Find Problems to Fuel Ideas
Innovation starts with problems. Ineffective leaders ignore problems and sweep them under the carpet. Innovative leaders love problems because they’re the basis for new ideas. Every month, ask your team to share the toughest problems they’re facing due to working remotely or in their work serving customers. Keep a running list that you can continually prioritize. The result: People see you’re serious about addressing real issues and they don’t hold back sharing problems that, if solved, will make a big different for the business.
2. Bring on Virtual Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a simple process that includes generating lots of ideas, prioritizing them, and the selection the best of the best to pursue. Get a tool specifically designed for online brainstorming, like Mural, Lucidchart, or Ideaboardz. The result: People learn the brainstorming process and your team will have online tools that are just as effective as stickies on a white board.
3. Tell Symbolic Stories
People remember stories. And stories contain messages about what’s important and why. Look for current or past examples of “innovation” from your team, other teams in your organization, or even outside your company. Find stories about how people overcame physical distance or used technology to innovate. Discuss what led to success and how you can do similar things as a team working remotely. The result: People internalize what’s important and why and will re-tell the same stories to others as part of reinforcing culture.
4. Pair Up to Show Up
Working remotely can feel isolating. Pair people to tackle a tough idea or problem. Give pairs time to work together and then report back progress. Use the larger team to provide feedback and support each pair’s efforts. Run virtual “innovation synch-ups,” where pairs share their ideas with the larger team and get feedback. The result: Pairing people up builds relationships infused with the values of innovation while ensuring more robust results.
5. Count It to Make It Count
You get what you measure. Set a target to collect some number of new ideas per month (like 15-20) and successfully implement 1-2 as a team. Track and report on progress regularly so everyone knows the targets are serious success measures. Create an online dashboard that you that you use to track progress from meeting to meeting. The result: People see the importance of quantifiable results and feel accountable to them.
6. Celebrate Wins to Create a Winning Team
Recognition of achievements and team celebrations are as important as ever. When someone delivers an innovation–whether creating a new product, service, process, or anything else–recognize them publicly. During virtual team meetings, set aside time for “virtual awards” to recognize those who have made valuable contributions. Email or snail mail a certificate or gift card in advance so recipients have real-world awards in their possession during the ceremony. The result: People understand the innovative behavior and results that are valued and will do what they can to deliver more of it themselves.
As I wrote in my last article, business should ideally keep going and growing, even in a pandemic or economic downturn. Innovation shouldn’t stop either. If you’re not innovating, it’s likely someone else is. And it’s likely your competition. In today’s world, everything eventually gets disrupted. Your culture is ultimately your only sustainable competitive advantage–even in a virtual world. Shape yours today.