What A Remote Workforce Means For Innovation

Christel Deskins

By Tatiana Walk-Morris Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the accounting, consulting and technology firm Crowe had developed a mobile innovation lab for gathering and working through ideas. Then the spread of the coronavirus made in-person meetings unsafe.  As an international firm with offices spread across the United States and Europe, Crowe […]

By Tatiana Walk-Morris

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the accounting, consulting and technology firm Crowe had developed a mobile innovation lab for gathering and working through ideas. Then the spread of the coronavirus made in-person meetings unsafe. 

As an international firm with offices spread across the United States and Europe, Crowe already supported its employees who worked remotely—but now the firm also had to adjust its approach to innovation.

“There’s long been a belief that a lot of innovation comes out of serendipity,” said Derek Bang, chief strategy and innovation officer at Crowe. “When everyone is going from [one video call to the next], you have less of an opportunity for those serendipitous encounters.”

According to a recent Crowe Pulse Survey of clients, 48% of respondents overall said their transition to remote work was excellent. The survey also examined specific industries, with 56% of respondents in the banking sector rating their organization’s transition to remote work as excellent; meanwhile, 53% of public sector and 37% of manufacturing and distribution respondents said the same. 

In terms of shifting to remote work, manufacturing companies appear to be facing more challenges than professional services firms are facing. This is understandable given that the manufacturing sector must make and then transport goods, said Josh Cole, managing principal, consulting at Crowe. Though the manufacturing and distribution industry is vital to keeping the economy afloat and is somewhat at the forefront of the pandemic, there are opportunities for the sector to innovate—even at a time like this, he said. 

Manufacturing and distribution companies are “facing more challenges than professional services or technology firms. Stating the obvious, they make stuff. They move stuff,” Cole said. “But when we look at their innovation, they can use similar concepts, and I would encourage them to think no differently than other industries.”

Without a physical office serving as a hub for employees, how can companies keep remote workers focused on collaboration, creativity and innovation? The answer, Crowe professionals said, lies in leadership blending a robust remote technological infrastructure with a personal touch.

Connect Through Tech

No, everyone can’t be together in team meetings right now. But thankfully, today’s conferencing and project management technologies can keep remote workers more connected than endless emails and conference calls. 

Crowe relies on a mix of video conferencing, project management and collaboration tools, Cole said. Lengthy email threads aren’t always the most effective method of exchanging ideas. But more robust collaboration platforms can help employees organize concepts virtually and house their documents, task boards and additional information in one spot, said Mark Strawmyer, managing principal, applied technology at Crowe. 

Without in-person serendipitous encounters, team leaders need to facilitate chance encounters virtually, Bang says. Though it might seem at odds with running a quick, effective meeting, giving employees time to chat with one another is an investment in keeping everyone connected, he says.

“Before you get down to business for each of your meetings, can you have a check-in with people?” Bang asked. “How are you doing, what are you seeing and what problems are you facing right now?” 

Culture Comes First

To Cole, companies must have an established culture and model for innovation first, including techniques to change mindsets as needed. Strawmyer added that the pandemic has also emphasized the importance of creating an inclusive and diverse culture that allows workers to bring their whole selves to work because doing so makes it easier for workers to cope during uneasy times. 

Though managers might periodically have doubts about remote workers’ productivity, it’s vital for companies to create a culture of trusting their employees to complete their work and continue innovating even when they’re off-site, Strawmyer added. As personnel continue to work from home, companies might need to reevaluate how they assess productivity. After all, spending a lot of time in the office isn’t an effective productivity indicator. Employees in the office environment are just as, if not more, capable of wasting time, Strawmyer said. 

Understand And Maximize New Routines

In the beginning of the pandemic, workers were focused on getting used to their remote workflow. But now that they are adjusting to the current working conditions, Bang anticipates that more innovation will follow. Depending on their unique situation, removing a lengthy commute or wrapping up other projects has freed some employees up to focus on long-term ideas, he added.

However, while working from home does free up time, there’s a big difference between transitioning to remote work under normal circumstances and shifting to remote work during a pandemic, Strawmyer acknowledged. Now that workers are balancing other responsibilities such as childcare during their workdays, it’s essential for businesses to invest in optimal remote work support.

Strawmyer recalled talking with his team about the uptick in meetings that contributed to tech fatigue. On top of the instant messages, emails and other communications, teams must acknowledge the added stress of the pandemic and understand how work routines have changed as a result, he said. Once teams know how their work routines have changed due to the pandemic, they can modify their work schedules with breaks that will help them engage or disengage as needed. 

“Taking a deep breath, admitting to yourself it’s okay not to be okay and having your team recognize that it’s okay not to be okay can go a long way to helping folks cope,” Strawmyer said.

Invest In Ideas

It’s unclear just how long employees will have to work from home for health and safety reasons. Crowe is working to understand how to maintain its culture of innovation and thinking for the long term at a time when workers are mostly focused on the present, Bang said. 

Beyond its former innovation lab, the company has long offered a Fast Track program and other proprietary tools for exploring employees’ ideas. And Crowe employees have continued to submit requests for funding to test out new ideas, Bang said. Some years, the company doesn’t spend the entire fund, but this year saw a big uptick: Employees have put in requests for the whole fund in the first quarter.

“People now have maybe a little more capacity than they had before,” Bang said. “Maybe that freed-up time from not commuting or from projects slowing down will allow them a little time to think longer term.”

Need guidance and tips on managing a remote workforce? Find the latest insights from Crowe on what you can do to strengthen communication, productivity and work-life balance.

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