Hybrid work environments, innovation, and the post covid world
Capitalism is by definition competitive. The Western business environment of the past few decades has been characterised by competition in goods and services markets, and tightly controlled ownership of physical assets, intellectual property and production ability. This has certainly strengthened our economy, but over time, many have begun to question the resilience of this economic outlook, and its consequences for people and the planet. Instead of being fiercely competitive by default, we have begun to wonder if we could better achieve our goals by working together.
The move towards more collaborative business is indicative of a shift in mindset. It speaks to a different kind of organisation – often one that needs to deliver a broader range of goods and services to its customers, and works with partners to achieve this. We see this in the recent proliferation of platform businesses, in as-a-service models, and in the changing makeup of business ecosystems to include startups and intrapreneurship.
But in a covid-19 world, the physical proximity that was once considered so crucial to creative collaboration is problematic. What is the outlook for collaboration in a socially distanced environment? Can we really work well together in a remote setting? How will our workplaces need to change to take all this into account?
Move fast, work together
When businesses adopt open, collaborative practices, barriers to innovation are removed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the flurry of initiatives to fight covid-19 that emerged at the beginning of the pandemic.
For example, in early March the government launched the Ventilator Challenge UK, a consortium of manufacturers and medical device specialists to design and produce new ventilator equipment. Thanks to the collaboration of these parties (and a lot of hard work) the consortium was able to increase ventilator production from a target of 50 to at least 1,500 units per week. We have seen similarly impressive initiatives across the NHS, local government, and in the not for profit sector responses.
As Tom Renn, Managing Director, Bruntwood SciTech – Manchester states:
“Today, collaboration is critically important to making advances. It’s looking at things as a shared endeavour, as win-win opportunities, and not for personal gain. We are now seeing a trend towards more collaboration between parties across the board. It’s not just big corporates working together, it’s collaboration between academia and industry through knowledge partnerships such as Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation. It’s diverse parties of different sizes and experiences coming together to create new models, and new ways of delivering value.”
Out of office
As soon as we began to evacuate offices as a result of covid-19, organisations’ working from home practices were put to the test. Whilst remote working has been a break from the daily commute, and a welcome adjustment in work-life balance for many, it is not without its challenges. These are most clearly seen in a lack of effective methods for collaboration.
“Virtual work environments have their benefits,” Renn says, “notably because they allow those in remote locations to participate as fully as those in a local setting. But there are obvious shortcomings working in a virtual domain only. It’s not an ideal setting for collaboration – it lacks those serendipitous moments, those informal conversations that occur. You just don’t get the same dialogue going online. It’s very orderly, there’s no conflict, and there’s a real lack of social cues that causes problems with communication.”
Given our inherent human nature as social beings, it’s no surprise that many of us are keen to get back to the workplace – if not just for work, but the other things a physical working environment offers us too.
From their recent Return to the Workplace survey, Bruntwood SciTech found 60 per cent of respondents were very or somewhat looking forward to returning to their office. Important motivations were regaining some form of work-life separation, maintaining a routine, and collaborating more easily with colleagues.
A hybrid environment
As some begin to return to the office, and others stay at home, we are entering a hybrid work environment which requires far more flexibility than before. Just as remote working made us adapt our practices, this middle ground requires an adjustment to our physical workspaces too. Quite simply, they must work harder for us than they ever have in the past.
“We need a more agile approach to work,” Renn says, “to the way people work, their hours, and how teams connect. We will never be able to replace working together in a fixed physical location – this provides the clustering benefits, the chance interactions people experience in offices and innovation districts. I have no doubt that our cities will continue to thrive, but we need flexible, adaptable spaces.”
“We need to think about what purpose an office is serving,” he adds. “What amenities it has, and what experience it offers to work and collaborate. Coming in to the office to spend the day on Zoom is pointless, for example, you might as well have stayed at home…”
Given the current level of economic uncertainty, there’s a question mark around the future collaborative working practices of big businesses. Will large corporates continue to pursue outward-looking innovation strategies, such as accelerators, mergers & acquisitions, and external partnerships? Or will they focus on their own core operations? It’s a tricky balance between risk and reward.
“Even before the coronavirus, investment in business was already down,” Renn says. “So now, with the likes of Rolls Royce and Jaguar Land Rover – who are both big investors in entrepreneurship – having to lay off staff, they may not want to work with SMEs. Of course, they understand the value that can be offered by this collaborative process, but will they want to be doing it right now? We will undoubtedly see a change in the relationship between big businesses and SMEs.”
There are no clear answers moving forward, but these issues are giving organisations a lot to think about. Crucial to collaboration is effective communication – so if one’s thing for certain, it’s the need to keep talking.
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