It’s no secret that innovation thrives in organizations where communication flows freely. For most people the biggest change in the transition to remote work was how we communicate. So, as the overnight transition that Covid-19 brought about, becomes a long-term way of working and we face an increasingly challenging economic climate, it’s vital that we understand how this impacts innovation.
Taking office games seriously
Communication tends to be particularly free-flowing when strong informal networks exist within an organization and ideas and information flow in a more organic and often unpredictable way. Areas full of games and break-out zones are not merely expensive ways to indulge and attract talent, but important building blocks to encourage frequent interactions amongst individuals who wouldn’t necessarily work together. Office yoga and table football help build the bridges linking the various nodes of your organization in an informal network. So the question is what happens when you take the office out of the equation?
Our Digital Etiquette research shows that the absence of these social interactions is not only what people missed most in the transition to remote work, but this loss also had a major impact on motivations.
For those working in IT, more so than others in fact, the shift away from working side-by-side was the thing that had the greatest negative impact on their motivation. For most other sectors, it was the loss of the clear delineation of work and personal life.
Communication angst and inefficiency
Perhaps equally counter-intuitive is the finding that it's the younger generation of workers who worry most about how to communicate virtually on work-related channels. 46 percent of Millennial workers worry about this daily (vs an average of 38 percent and just 22 percent of over 45s) 12 percent of the under 35s worry about this constantly. Dig a little deeper and it's perhaps not so counterintuitive.
When you’re new in any environment you rely more heavily on social cues and body language and the absence of these cues and the lack of context makes it harder to know if you’ve got the tone right or not or whether you’ve misinterpreted something. On average 1 in 3 workers have misinterpreted the tone of a digital communication, but amongst the under 35s this increases to 40 percent.
The key challenge for everyone is that there is a distinct lack of consensus in how to use these channels. For instance, engineers feel that making critical comments on work-based messaging platforms is broadly acceptable (only 16 percent felt this was unacceptable), but 33 percent of those in sales or marketing find this unacceptable.
Lack of clarity on which channels to use for which type of information is also leading to inefficiency with workers spending 45 minutes a day on average - or half a day a week - searching for information which has been sent to them. With new channels being added and increasingly blurred lines between work and personal channels (one in three are now using WhatsApp for work), it's easier to find ourselves constantly switching from one context to another.
We lose around 30 percent of our time dealing with interruptions and this can increase to 50 percent when we need to focus on an activity that requires us to keep multiple pieces of information in mind. Frequent interruptions create added stress.
Anxiety impacts not only our wellbeing, but also our ability to innovate.
Free-flowing, organic communications are complex, as we cannot predict where ideas and when it comes to handling complexity, our capacities are varied. This idea started with Jane Loevinger’s research into ego development. It has since been developed further by a number of psychologists looking at adult psychological development, including Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, before being taken up by William R. Torbert and David Rooke in their work on leadership development frameworks.
The interesting point in this context is that, under pressure we revert to earlier stages of meaning making or psychological development, where we prefer hierarchy and more structured communication flows and approaches to innovation. So, we can find ourselves trying to manage this complexity (and reduce our anxiety) by bringing order to it and in so doing, we effectively throttle the communication flow and compromise the emergent nature of innovation.
Even if your own team is coping and communicating well, it’s important to understand how your team’s interactions with other parts of the business are faring. So in order to innovate faster, IT leaders need to prioritize internal communication - for their own teams and the wider organization.
Four ways to support innovation through communication
Reduce distractions and inefficiencies
Attention Economy theory recognizes that our attention, or our ability to focus, is a finite resource. So endless noise or careless communication that causes you to switch context uses up this valuable resource. The blurring of work and home communication channels can make this problem worse as our attention and focus is frequently being diverted from the work at hand - whether that’s our work or our personal affairs.
Using personal communication tools can work well, but it may require added guidance on how they should be used and when. Clarifying processes like which channels you should use to share files or when to use the company alias and what should be posted in each type of Slack channel can help to reduce unnecessary noise and inefficiency.
Encourage ‘random’ interactions and providing clarity
In order to create an environment where innovation thrives we need to foster coincidental (often seemingly random) interactions with the people we don’t work with directly, but people need to feel empowered to do so.
Giving people clear guidance on how to use channels both for work and social interactions not only helps reduce anxiety, but also empowers people to socialize and to set up events and activities which will build these vital cross-functional relationships and interactions.
Support a culture of collaborative learning
Only around half of the 2800 people in our study had received any training on how to use the communication tools they are now suddenly reliant on. Training on how to use the tools is the more straightforward part, but the real value is in looking at how we can use them to interact more effectively as an organization. Training doesn’t always need to be formal or implemented from the top down and a culture of collaborative learning and support can be a faster and more effective route.
There is no one size fits all solution for how to foster these interactions so there will be a degree of trial and error and people will require different levels of support and interaction at different times. Go into this accepting this reality and take an iterative approach.
Unlock the potential of your network
By looking at an organization’s internal communications as a network we have been able to identify: where the silos and inefficiencies are occurring; and where they have people on the periphery with little engagement. We can then provide actionable insights to help teams to adapt and thrive. Crucially, once you can see these things in a network, you can then measure the impact that that your actions are having on the network.
To download the report or further information and tips visit this link.
Simon Haighton-Williams, CEO, Adaptavist