Rajiv Mirani is Chief Technology Officer for Nutanix, providing enterprise cloud platform solutions.
Every technology leader has talked about fostering short-term innovation during the pandemic. Businesses have spent the past year in scramble mode, adapting as rapidly as possible to a remote model and finding short-term solutions to keep dispersed teams engaged. But almost a year after the pandemic hit, it’s become evident that remote work isn’t a flash in the pan. Most companies are embracing some form of remote or hybrid flexibility for the long haul, including Twitter, Microsoft and even Netflix. What are these companies doing to make sure we can keep remote innovation a priority in the long run?
The Band-Aid solutions CIOs and CTOs used at the onset of the pandemic won’t work for the deeper-rooted challenges of a permanent remote work environment, from siloed communication to video fatigue. Over 60% of managers still feel they haven’t effectively learned how to empower remote teams.
Investing in long-term innovation demands cross-collaboration to determine which strategies are the best path forward. I’ve had many conversations with our leadership team to develop the “innovation mindset” that will position our teams for long-term success. Here are the frameworks we’ve discussed.
Experiment with tools to determine what enables teams to cross-collaborate.
Walking by another colleague’s desk and striking up a brief conversation can give you insight into what they’re working on. This casual conversation is hard to replicate outside the office — and even the employees who return to the office might not ever again have desks to stop by.
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In a remote setting, people tend to work in silos, meaning individual team members are often in the dark about what other projects are in play. Silos especially impact junior team members who benefit from the quick encounters that build a sense of belonging. “Generation Work-From-Home” needs to see the bigger picture, and it’s hard to do when ideas aren’t openly shared across departments.
To recreate the free flow of ideas from home, we experimented with a few tools designed to help us come together and share our thinking. We started by testing out free-flowing whiteboards on Zoom, but found them too clunky and not engaging enough.
We finally found something that worked: using Zoom breakout rooms to host “paper reading sessions” — small groups of three to four people who share ideas and read their papers. Zoom “Ted Talks” are also popular at Nutanix as a primary way to show work. And it doesn’t even have to be a Ted Talk about work topics; it can be on any interests or hobbies. This fosters the close-knit group ties that enable creative collaboration.
Don’t think of innovation as a single event; think of it as a core tactic to document for future use.
Lightning can strike twice — as long as your team makes it part of their daily workflow.
IT leaders should adopt a “tactical innovation” mindset, meaning they think about innovation as a core tactical function. Every step toward innovation should be documented and shared, just like any other tactical process. When our CIO rolled out this approach during the pandemic, she told her IT team they were responsible for their own innovation tactics. They needed to document and elevate the innovations that would be useful to others so they could be replicated and scaled.
This also meant reorganizing the IT team into smaller units and focusing their attention on organizational priorities. For example, one team is focused on end user computing (they have their own budget, can decide their roadmap and can set their timeline). Our CIO also tracks the productivity and output of these smaller teams. This is for “street cred” — people want to be known as innovative problem-solvers.
Make meeting prep mandatory to combat the video conferencing grind.
Meetings should energize your teams for innovation, not drain them. But video conferencing fatigue is real — so real that an abundance of articles now exists on how to fight it. Unfortunately, for IT and engineering leaders in particular, there’s no simple answer like “ban all meetings on Fridays,” because they have to be available for support at all times and across time zones.
There’s a way forward, though. One reason video meetings are so draining is because they require more intense concentration. Since we aren’t in the same room with a team, we can’t rely on side conversations or ask quick questions to catch us up. As a result, getting people on a Zoom call to reach a consensus on a decision can lead to talking in circles and wasting time getting everyone up to speed.
To make meetings more productive, IT leaders should make meeting prep a team-wide requirement. Ensure managers send necessary reading material a few days in advance of a strategy meeting. Reading ahead of time can help participants formulate questions, which speeds up decision-making. That way, what might have been an hour-long discussion can be pared down to a quicker and more efficient 15- to 20-minute meeting — and your team can spend more energy on innovation.
Recognize the difference between productivity and innovation.
While productivity hasn’t been dramatically impacted by the shift to remote work, core innovation is a different story. People can still get their work done and keep the lights on, but they’re feeling more distant from the close team ties and shared mission that drives true innovation.
We can stay in survival mode for years on end, doing the minimum to keep our heads above water — or we can work more effectively than before. As the World Economic Forum states, “The intense innovation activity ignited by the global pandemic shows that some elephants can dance when they must.” We have the technology tools and capabilities at our disposal to design a remote workplace that not only enables innovation but encourages it.
Our remote work world is here to stay, and it’s up to us to put the right mindset in place to ensure creative thinking and innovation stay at the forefront and that we can continue empowering our teams to strive for more.