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BOLD OPINION: Serendipity Is Overrated, Innovation Can Happen Anywhere

innovation with remote work celebrated with wine

Innovation and creativity lie at the core of business success in a competitive climate. Companies who foster innovation enjoy first-to-market advantages as well as early brand recognition. They also cultivate an environment that motivates and energizes its employees. But since the pandemic, there’s been a major debate over whether innovation with remote work can compare to in-office interactions. These unplanned, unexpected in-person encounters are said to drive creativity. Therefore, some believe working from home will significantly undermine the potential for business growth and success. This in-office serendipity is precisely why some companies are requiring their workers to come back full-time.

a group proving innovation with remote work is possible
True believers of in-office work believe there is no innovation with remote work, but they’re wrong!

(Full-time office work is still dead, dead, dead–read about it in this Bold story.)

There’s no question that human interactions can inspire new ideas and spawn creativity. The real question is whether these interactions must be face-to-face. In-office serendipity and happenstance encounters have been shown to cultivate innovation, especially in some sectors. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that innovation with remote work can’t also exist. In fact, some argue that structured approaches using virtual technologies might even encourage creative ideas to an even greater extent. If this is indeed the case, then in-office serendipity might well be exaggerated in terms of its impact.

Evidence Supporting In-Office Serendipity

It’s not hard to find support for employees returning to work to drive innovation. Several CEOs have gone on record stating that “water cooler” moments are essential for developing the right creative culture. Interestingly, many employees actually agree with such statements. In large survey involving 5,300 employees from 20 different industries, more than half believed the same thing. A total of 54% of workers of large corporations believed innovation was better when they were in the office. Among small companies, nearly three-quarters said the same thing. This support for in-office serendipity suggests that innovation with remote work is at least inferior by comparison.

Recent decisions by several companies also show support for in-office serendipity. This is notably true in sectors with rapidly developing technologies where innovation is key. For example, in San Francisco, clusters of AI companies are forming in an effort to be close to one another. Ideas and concepts concerning AI are highly complex and not easily shared via videoconferencing and emails. As a result, attempts at innovation with remote work in AI risks falling behind the competition. This is understandable, but this does not necessarily apply to other businesses. Such communications and interactions may offer quality opportunities for creative endeavors. Regardless, it seems clear that at least some pockets benefit from in-office serendipity.

Evidence Supporting Innovation with Remote Work

When it comes to remote or hybrid work, it’s clear most companies continue to pursue these employment arrangements. Workers have demanded such options, and in order to recruit quality talent, this is essential. Based on recent data, 64% of businesses use hybrid models of work while 20% provide complete remote opportunities. The small percentage remaining actually require employees to work full time in the office. Given these large numbers, it seems illogical that innovation with remote work isn’t occurring. Perhaps in-office serendipity drives innovation part-time with hybrid models. But what about those companies that are totally remote? Are they simply content to be less creative and competitive?

a dude inventing VR tech
You can invent stuff at home just as well as invent it in the office.

(Potential employees are now requiring remote or hybrid work–read this Bold story to learn more.)

One way to examine this is by looking at the number of new product patents over time. This is precisely what McKinsey researchers did in an effort to examine innovation with remote work. During the two years of the pandemic, they look at patent applications in 150 nations throughout the world. There results showed that record numbers of patents took place during this time period. Certainly, other confounding variables may have been at play, including heightened productivity resulting from remote work. But the evidence still strongly suggests that in-office serendipity as a driver of innovation is exaggerated.

Fueling Innovation with Remote Work

In addition to the research already cited, there’s additional evidence regarding best practices for driving remote work innovation. Notably, for those working from home, the specific opportunities they may miss out on involves spontaneous encounters beyond their immediate team. Cross-functional team workers may never interact using routine videoconferencing and occasional in-office work. The same is true for haphazard conversations jumpstarted by novel ideas. The goal to reproduce innovation with remote work is to mimic in-office serendipity as best as possible. And it’s been shown that this can indeed be accomplished.

a kid experiencing in-office serendipity
In-office serendipity and out-of-office serendipity are both possible, but the latter saves on facilities costs.

Many companies using hybrid and remote work models invest in collaborative software to help fuel creativity. Platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack are quite popular in this regard. But rather than just utilizing these for routine collaboration, best practices require some additional tweaks. Specifically, it requires creating specific channels where staff can throw out any ideas that come to mind. Others from any department or team can then chime in, critique, or expand the original thought. Not only does this provide a broad forum for innovative thought, but it also taps into others’ natural tendency to respond. We all like to contribute, advise, and be recognized for our knowledge. Such channels using collaborative platforms is a great way to mimic in-office serendipity.

There are other strategies as well for boosting innovation with remote work. These involve mentoring to drive greater integration of ideas among cross-functional teams. This is particularly important for new hires and onboarding activities. By mentoring them through collaborative platforms, they are more involved from the start. And for existing employees, mentors demonstrate and support connections and networking among different sections of the business. Indeed, this is more structured in nature and less like in-office serendipity and happenstance. But that doesn’t mean it’s not effective in driving innovation. 

In-Office Serendipity – Fact or Fiction

Based on the best practices for promoting innovation with remote work, you might be surprised how many businesses have adopted these. Surveys show that 79% of companies set aside informal gathering times virtually for remote and hybrid workers. Nearly four out of five have days dedicated to collaboration and utilize mentoring programs. And 69% reported increasing the number of team retreats in an effort to mimic in-office serendipity. Based on best evidence, innovation with remote work does exist, and it can be cultivated. That doesn’t mean in-office serendipity isn’t beneficial. But for those suggesting it’s essential, this seems quite exaggerated.


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