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The impact of virtual collaboration on teams’ innovation potential: More efficiency but less creativity

Anna-Lena Höcker: August 19, 2020

For office-based employees all around the world switching from office life to fully virtual collaboration has happened practically overnight. Experiencing this shift with my current clients has given me the opportunity to directly observe and discuss the effects on team’s innovation potential with a diverse group of people. In particular, I have been able to collect data from multiple focus groups, ethnographic interviews and company internal online surveys. Based on these data and my own experiences, I have listed some pros and cons of purely virtual collaboration for teams’ innovation potential.

PROS OF VIRTUAL COLLABORATION IN TEAMS

More (incremental) innovation around ways of collaboratingand sparking teams’ creativity on a pre-set topic:

In order to make virtual meetings and workshops more engaging and productive people have finally started to experiment with tools other than Power Point. Or, at least, are thinking about ways to foster collaboration on the basis of slides, instead of mere “show and tell” presentations. Team collaboration around a pre-set topic is also encouraged by various virtual tools. There are much more options in use than was the case in the standard office surroundings and people are adapting at a far higher speed. “Even though we’ve been used to virtual collaboration as a global team, lately we’ve become much more innovative around ways of collaboration.” – is one of the multiple comments I’ve heard from leaders and employees alike.

More empathy

As work interactions have to be synchronized with private life that is going on in parallel, team members learn much more about each other’s lives, challenges, needs and feelings. “20% of our interactions are now about personal situations,” a people leader states. “I have built a lot of empathy and understanding with my direct reports.” This seems true not only for hierarchical but also peer-to-peer and service provider situations. Thus driving the assumption that we will see more human centered, need based innovative employee solutions in the future. Surprising but true, virtual collaboration has taught us more empathy – the core of human centered design.

More contribution possibilities

Democratization is a widely noted side effect of virtual work. People became more equal in terms of visibility as their individual location, physical symbols of power and even hierarchies proved less relevant. What is more, virtual collaboration tools are created for sharing and contributing. Curious people have been leveraging this openness to secure additional interesting tasks and dive into more diverse topics than before. People who described themselves as introverts noted that they felt less shy in contributing via virtual tools and social media – feeling that they could do so in a safe space.

Teams will benefit from individuals expanding their view and possibly creating unconventional connections driven by curiosity.

High team productivity

Specifically, in leadership interviews people expressed their surprise about how well teams switched from physical to virtual settings, showing the same or even higher productivity when delivering projects. Planned innovation and mature solution ideas have been executed with high effectiveness – even in settings where people required access to lab space and appliances or specialist technology. Structured implementation of innovative ideas seems to have thrived in virtual settings.

CONS OF VIRTUAL COLLABORATION IN TEAMS

Less spontaneous interactions that enable unconventional connections and spark (radically) new ideas:

The probability of accidentally overhearing people outside of one’s own team or organization and engaging them in a conversation that cross-pollinates ideas is simply not present in a virtual setting. In my conversations with clients, several have expressed their regret about not being able to run into anyone spontaneously and building new relationships that may feed their professional curiosity. “As an extrovert I’m shut off in the home office. I want to sound my ideas with someone at a very early stage and I feel I can’t do that in a really spontaneous manner,” one of my clients said. Hallway, water cooler & coffee machine chats are widely missed – alluding to a connection of social interaction and potential creativity.

Less focus

Longer hours, back-to-back meetings, squeezing in family chores resulting in little to no focus time – this experience is very common among the people I’ve been working with lately. What is more, virtual collaboration tools bring an inherent risk of permanent interruptions via the multiple alerts that usually are enabled by default. Less focus and hardly any breaks are a bad combination for individual creativity. The mind needs breaks, alternative occupations such as deep play and “time to wander”: to process and subconsciously finish initiated tasks and to come up with new and creative solutions for complex problems.

Consciously noted or not – the individual capacity to be innovative will suffer if this becomes a permanent state, let alone the collaborative creativeness without physical settings.

Less creativity triggers

From what I observe, even in pre-COVID-times most people have been working almost exclusively with their computers – apart from meetings and the occasional workshop.  With online activity being the only “proof” of work in a virtual setting, the majority of office workers are attached to the computer even more. They rarely step outside to reflect a topic or use more creative ways of working such as visualization and mind mapping. And while these activities seem to be outcome based, the mere physical process of sketching, handwriting or building a prototype may trigger new ways of thinking. Over time, the brain would learn to think and embrace complex challenges differently, gaining “creative literacy”.

Teams and individuals who were not used to creative techniques before will hardly learn them in an exclusively virtual setting.

Low team creativity

As alluded to above, low individual focus time and lack of creative literacy will ultimately lead to reduced team creativity and innovation potential. What is more, a lot of interviewees and survey participants stated the need for physical co-creation, workshops and brainstorming – bouncing ideas off each other and receiving creative impulses did not work for them in the virtual setting.

From my perspective as a facilitator, an additional impediment to successful virtual workshops is also lack of familiarity with virtual workshop tools – learning the tools and overcoming technical issues while trying to be creative is far less straight forward than working with guidance in a physical setting. We might not be aware of it but it is highly probable that those crazy and out of the box ideas that really drive innovation get lost in the virtual space.

CONCLUSION

My participation in and facilitation of virtual collaboration triggers the conclusion that this mode of collaboration can help to increase the efficiency of incremental innovation activities. At the same time, I also notice that virtual collaboration hampers exploration and creativity, which is a necessary resource for more radical innovation endeavors. I therefore hope that, when things get back to normal at some point – or when establishing a new normal –  managers will pay additional time and effort in nurturing team creativity as this essential team activity has likely suffered from a fully virtual team setting.

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