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Apple, Disney, Salesforce: Why are the world’s best companies failing to innovate on the future of work?

January 23, 2023, 5:29 PM UTC
Apple's Tim Cook is one of several leading CEOs who say remote work has had a negative effect on innovation.
Justin Sullivan - Getty Images

This month, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger demanded that all employees return to the office for at least four days a week. “In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, Iger said.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has expressed a similar sentiment. Cook demanded that employees come to the office at least three days a week because “innovation isn’t always a planned activity. It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

Marc Benioff, the co-founder and co-CEO of Salesforce, recently sent a company-wide Slack message complaining about the low productivity of recent hires made during the pandemic and asked “Are we not building tribal knowledge with new employees without an office culture?”

Salesforce permits a high degree of flexibility for employees: teams and their leaders make the choice about what kind of work arrangements suit their needs best. But does such flexibility threaten the development and integration of recently hired junior staff and harm their connections to established staff and team culture?

Weak ties

The answer is more complicated. Researchers at MIT found that remote work weakens the cross-functional, inter-team “weak ties” that form the basis for the exchange of new ideas that tend to foster innovation. A study by Microsoft similarly found that remote work weakens innovation since workers communicate less with those outside their own teams.

However, McKinsey’s research points to a different conclusion. It found that, during the more than two years of the pandemic, there’s been a record number of new patents across 150 global patent filing authorities. Moreover, in 2021, global venture capital more than doubled from 2020, rising 111%.

McKinsey suggests that it’s because more innovative companies have developed new ways of connecting remote workers together to build and sustain the cross-functional, inter-term ties necessary for innovation, thus widening the pools of minds that could generate new ideas. Deloitte similarly highlights how adapting the process of innovation to remote settings offers the key to boosting innovation for hybrid and remote teams.

Spontaneous interactions

My experience in helping 21 organizations transition to hybrid and remote work demonstrates that innovation is eminently doable. It requires adopting best practices that address the weakening of cross-functional connections and the lack of spontaneous interactions that breed innovation. Unfortunately, companies like Disney and Apple have adopted a traditionalist perspective on how to innovate, which ironically hinders innovation.

An excellent technique for innovation in hybrid and remote teams is to replace innovation-breeding random conversations by relying on collaboration software like Slack or Microsoft Teams. All you need to do is set up a specific channel in that software to facilitate the creativity, spontaneity, and collaboration behind serendipitous innovation–and to incentivize employees to use that channel.

For example, in a late-stage SaaS start-up that used Microsoft Teams, each small team of six to eight people set up a team-specific channel for members to share innovative ideas relevant to the team’s work. Likewise, larger business units established channels for ideas applicable to the whole business unit. Then, when anyone had an idea, they were encouraged to share that idea in the pertinent channel.

We encouraged everyone to pay attention to notifications in that channel. Seeing a new post, if they found the idea relevant, they would respond with additional thoughts building on the initial idea. Responses would snowball, and sufficiently good ideas would then lead to the next step, often a brainstorming session.

This approach combines a native virtual format with people’s natural motivations to contribute, collaborate, and claim credit for it. The initial idea poster and the subsequent contributors aren’t motivated simply by the goal of advancing the team or business unit, even though that’s of course part of their goal set. The initial poster is motivated by the possibility of sharing an idea that might be recognized as sufficiently innovative, practical, and useful to implement, with some revisions.

The contributors, in turn, are motivated by the natural desire to give advice, especially advice that’s visible to and useful for others in their team, business unit, or even the whole organization.

Optimists v. pessimists

This dynamic also fits well the different personalities of optimists and pessimists. You’ll find that the former will generally be the ones to post initial ideas. Their strength is innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, but their flaw is being blind to the potential problems in the idea. In turn, pessimists will overwhelmingly serve to build on and improve the idea, pointing out its potential flaws and helping address them.

Remember to avoid undervaluing the contributions of pessimists. It’s too common to pay excessive attention to the initial ideas and overly reward optimists. (I say this as an inveterate optimist myself, who has 20 ideas before breakfast and thinks they’re all brilliant!)

Through the combination of personal bitter experience and research on optimism and pessimism, I have learned the necessity of letting pessimistic colleagues vet and improve my ideas. My clients have found a great deal of benefits in highly valuing such “devil’s advocate” perspectives as well.

That’s why you should both praise and reward not only the generators of innovative ideas but also the two or three people who most contributed to improving and finalizing the idea. And that’s what the aforementioned late-stage startup did. The team or business unit leaders made sure that they both recognized publicly the contributions of the initial idea generators and the improvers of the idea, and also gave them a bonus proportionate to the value of their contributions. Indeed, several of these very ideas ended up generating patent applications.

Cross-functional ties and generational challenges

Many leaders join Benioff in expressing serious reservations over a flexible hybrid model, worrying that the professional growth and cultural integration of junior staff.

Thus, many leaders advocate for a return to the office as a means of addressing such concerns and reinvigorating what Benioff termed the “office culture.”

I tell such leaders that their concerns are real and need to be addressed–but there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Flexibility helps improve productivity and retention while cutting costs. It’s important and viable to find a win-win approach that retains these benefits while also facilitating the development of junior staff.

In fact, a full-time return to the office is likely to have a negative effect on junior staff, not a positive one.

According to the ADP Research Institute report, “People at Work 2022: A Global Workforce View,” Gen Zers are the most likely age group to say that “if my employer insisted on me returning to my workplace full time, I would consider looking for another job,” at 71%. By contrast, only 56% of those 45-54 said they would consider looking for another job.

Instead, the solutions I work on with clients involve a more targeted approach customized to the needs of junior staff. It does involve newer staff coming into the office more often, but not simply randomly: they’re not going to just pick up the culture and work habits of a company by osmosis, especially given that more experienced staff won’t be coming in as often as junior staff.

What’s needed is a deliberate, intentional, and structured program to facilitate their development and integration into company culture while maintaining flexible hybrid work arrangements.

This policy is distinct from a company’s onboarding program–but should plug into it. Junior staff should transition seamlessly from the onboarding program in their first several weeks into the development and integration program for the first couple of years.

A key component of a hybrid development and integration program involves on-the-job training. It comes primarily in the form of senior staff responding immediately to questions and concerns raised by recent hires: showing them how to do the tasks associated with the role, guiding them into best practices and unwritten rules and norms, and introducing them to important internal and external stakeholders. Such training involves senior staff observing the performance of junior staff and proactively providing them with feedback and suggestions for improvements.

Fortunately, on-the-job training can easily be done in a small group, with one senior staff member helping train six to eight junior employees. It takes having senior staff members coordinate schedules with junior staff to come to the office on the same days, and then work in the same open office space.

Every employee will work on their individual tasks. When a recent hire has a question, they ask it, and the experienced employee will answer and explain the context, so that the whole group gets the benefit of the explanation, without the senior staffer having to repeat it for each person in a one-on-one training setting.

This kind of activity does impede the efficiency of senior staffers–and needs to be considered in their performance evaluations as a service to the company. No one person should be overburdened with training. It’s helpful for junior staff to get on-the-job training from a variety of senior staff members rather than from just a single individual. Recent hires can get multiple perspectives and tactics for accomplishing work outcomes, while also learning about and connecting with different networks and stakeholders within a company.

The importance of mentors

As part of the development and integration program, it’s also helpful to provide formal mentoring for newer employees. Most of the mentoring should take place in the office since it’s easier to have conversations where recent hires can be vulnerable and admit a lack of confidence face-to-face, rather than via videoconference.

For example, to help address the weakening of cross-functional ties at the same SaaS company, while also improving the integration of recently hired staff, we set up a hybrid and remote mentoring program.

The program involved several mentors for each mentee. One came from the recently hired staff’s own team. That mentor assisted the mentee with understanding group dynamics, on-the-job learning, and professional growth.

However, we also included two mentors from other teams. One of them came from the same business unit as the junior staff, while another came from a separate business unit. The role of these two mentors involved getting the new employee integrated into the broader company culture, facilitating inter-team collaboration, and strengthening the “weak ties” among company staff to help foster collaboration.

Six months after these two interventions, the SaaS company reported a notable boost in innovation across the board. The channels devoted to innovation helped breed several novel projects. The mentor-mentee relationships resulted in mentees providing a fresh and creative perspective on the company’s existing work, while the mentors from outside the team helped spur productive conversations within teams that bred further innovation and collaboration.

If a late-stage startup with 400 employees could adopt these techniques, so too can Disney and Apple. Certainly, some tasks–such as hands-on mentoring, sensitive personnel conversations, intense collaborative discussions, key decision-making and strategic conversations, and fun team-building events–may best be done in person. Yet the more tasks you can do remotely, the better.

Unfortunately, Disney and Apple have adopted a traditionalist perspective on how to innovate, which ironically hinders innovation, since they are already losing talented people due to such mandates.

The future belongs to companies that make the best use of the most creative people around the globe (those who have options about where to work), while minimizing their time wasted in rush hour commutes. Doing so requires adopting best practices for hybrid and remote work, instead of being stuck in the past.

Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D., is the CEO of the future of work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of  Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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