Is Remote Work the Key to Increasing Open Innovation?

Published May 5, 2022

Courses Mentioned in this Post: Open Innovation, Remote Work Revolution for Everyone


For those working in knowledge-based jobs, the traditional workplace has gradually shifted – a shift hastened by the global pandemic. We no longer assume jobs will occur in a physical office. Instead many of us log on to our laptops and greet our coworkers around the virtual water cooler. Knowledge work is increasingly synonymous with digital work, which in turn opens the door to remote work. As the global pandemic continues, more companies have embraced the real potential of a remote workforce and the innovative thinking it can foster.

There are clear benefits to non-office working arrangements; remote work allows companies to lean into modern ways of working, cuts down on real estate costs, and expands the potential for future hires without geographical limitations. Beyond these immediate perks, companies may also find that these lifestyle changes can enhance employees’ contributions to their work. Allowing for remote work opens avenues for companies to utilize a greater pool of expertise from around the globe, thus allowing companies to curate more innovative thinking.

“We need to accept the fact that the world turned upside down and introduced a different way of working.”

-Tsedal Neeley

As Harvard Business School Professor and Senior Associate Dean Tsedal Neeley discussed with the Harvard Business Review, “We need to accept the fact that the world turned upside down and introduced a different way of working.” She explains how companies employing knowledge-based workers must embrace, accept, and adapt to this new way of working to avoid falling behind this cultural shift.

Professor Neeley is an expert on the topic of the workplace revolution, publishing a timely book and teaching a course on the topic, as well as a forthcoming book on how we need a digital mindset is crucial in today’s era of remote and hybrid work. She knows varied workplace arrangements are here to stay in one form or another and the benefits it can bring to a company’s growth.

“Hybrid work is not just about changing the location of the workplace. It’s also about changing our most fundamental routines to become more efficient and optimized,” Professor Neeley states in the Harvard Business Review. “It also suggests that the nature of work will evolve to include the automation of everyday repetitive tasks that steal time away from the more open-ended, higher-concept work of innovation… I anticipate that the processes that are most ingrained in a company’s workflows today will be taken apart and rebuilt from the ground up with new tools and goals.”

So, one might wonder, what new tools and tactics should business leaders lean on to foster the more open-ended work of innovation?

Harvard Business School Professor Karim Lakhani may have the answer: Open innovation.

“In a remote work setting, employees themselves are being thrust into the outside world. They’re no longer stuck in the unifying experience of office life, which allows them to tap into unique perspectives and entertain new ideas they may not have had the opportunity to previously consider.”

-Karim Lakhani

Open innovation is a paradigm that suggests solutions to some of the most difficult problems an organization faces actually reside outside of the organization. For example, we can look to NASA’s history of public challenges and competitions as a way of implementing open innovation. In our Open Innovation course, Former Senior Advisor to NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) Lynn Buquo notes, “within the federal government, NASA is small. So, there was recognition that we stood to benefit from public engagement and public involvement.”

With the creation of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, a collection of different public competitions divided by scientific focus with cash prizes, the organization honed in on an opportunity to utilize crowdsourcing as a means to innovation. As a result of the initial success of the program, individuals from across the U.S. continue to provide cutting edge ideas for NASA to implement.

“Concepts within open innovation such as crowdsourcing rely on companies discovering innovations by going to the outside world and bringing ideas in,” Professor Lakhani explains. “In a remote work setting, employees themselves are being thrust into the outside world. They’re no longer stuck in the unifying experience of office life, which allows them to tap into unique perspectives and entertain new ideas they may not have had the opportunity to previously consider.”

Your lifestyle shapes your perspective, which creates a valuable opportunity at the intersection of open innovation and remote work. Employees no longer spend 8 hours a day in the same building trying to innovate on the same whiteboards. Instead, companies are able to call upon their distributed workforce to lean into their individual experiences.

You may wonder though, by incorporating ideas from those outside your organization and calling upon employees to emphasize their exclusive experiences, is your company at risk of losing your corporate culture? Professor Neeley thinks not.

“The reality is that change has already happened by the sheer fact that we are now operating remotely,” she mentions when speaking with consulting firm McKinsey on the impact of remote work. “Remote work and virtuality have shifted our norms of working and what’s appropriate: How do we make decisions? How do we connect? How do we problem-solve? It’s shifted all of that. So the culture has already changed, and the thing to do now is think about how you will revise or update your culture so that people can thrive in a remote environment and adapt to this new world.”

In essence, if your workplace is already experimenting with remote work arrangements, you may be ready to tap into crowdsourcing innovative ideas with your employees as well as those outside your company.

Creating crowdsourcing initiatives within your organization doesn’t have to be a burdensome effort. Something as simple as creating a submission form to collect unique ideas can be a way to start to experiment with crowdsourcing and open innovation. Consider hosting a competition for new solutions. Host an internal hack-a-thon where employees gather together to tackle difficult business scenarios and problems. While formats can be varied, the goal of experimenting with open innovation and crowdsourcing is to create a space that fosters independent, varied thoughts that can boost your organizational growth beyond traditional approaches.

With overlapping values of celebrating uniqueness and leaning into employees’ diverse perspectives, open innovation and remote work can be beneficial partners in helping your organization strive towards a better future.

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