I think we can all agree that the days of grabbing a conference room to brainstorm with our entire team on a whiteboard may be over, or at least changed for the foreseeable future. The experience of sitting next to a teammate and working through a thorny problem that ends in smiles and a high-five seems to be a distant memory.

Certainly some of us are back in our offices five days a week, but for many of us, the hybrid and remote working world continues to be the norm. Many of us have new team members that will forever be remote. And when we are in our offices, it can feel like a weekend with sparsely staffed desks. The energy and buzz that once filled our spaces is gone, now replaced with a random “hello” hidden behind a facemask or a hesitant and awkward hug, fist-bump, or elbow touch. 

We must introduce new habits and take a leap of faith in leveraging emerging technologies.

With this new reality, we can no longer take for granted the in-person experiences that once fostered creative problem solving and innovation. We must introduce new habits and take a leap of faith in leveraging emerging technologies to connect all employees and give them a voice.

 

The roots of innovation and creative problem solving

Innovation doesn’t just happen. It’s a byproduct of people and processes coming together in planned and serendipitous ways that foster collaboration, creative thinking, and problem solving. It’s about using creativity to come up with novel solutions that can be implemented and bring value. More importantly, innovation is a team sport that requires diverse teams to leverage each other’s strengths and innate talents. 

In the pre-COVID-19 world, innovation and problem solving would occur in design thinking spaces, conference rooms, or even in an open floorplan with our teammates. Some sessions were planned; others were ad-hoc interactions that resulted in creative and innovative outcomes. In our hybrid and remote world, we need to fundamentally rethink how to create those connections to foster and sustain an innovative culture.

New habits, spaces, and leveraging emerging technology

Colorful boards carefully balanced and stacked in layers on balls

In our companies, we all had different habits that enabled creative problem solving. The spaces varied, and the tools we used were, let’s admit, usually primitive: sticky notes, flip charts, whiteboard markers, and maybe a screen at the front of the room. Some teams across the enterprise may have experimented with collaborative technologies, but many did not. In the new reality, we must rethink our tools and spaces, and leverage emerging technologies.

New habits 

Whether it’s design thinking, Lean, Agile, or just a simple project plan, we need to be disciplined in leveraging a process that provides consistency, transparency, and predictability. When your teams are distributed, creating a new habit of anchoring to a consistent process that has well-defined stages allows individuals to know where they play a role and have a shared vision on where things are going. Leveraging consistent process artifacts allows shared learning and insights into ideas and decisions. 

New spaces 

The pandemic has taught us that we are no longer anchored to our physical office spaces to get our work done. Work now happens in our homes and apartments, a vacation house on the beach, or at a coffee shop. Our office spaces need to fundamentally transform; they still need to nurture collaboration and connection, and reinforce the culture of the enterprise. They also need to be open to foster safety and comfort in the pandemic era, and be equally inclusive for those not in the office. If done right, the new spaces we create can encourage teams to gather, engage, and work creatively more effectively than ever.

New technologies 

Those whiteboards, dry erase markers, flipcharts, and Post-It notes are no longer good enough go-to tools in our remote culture. Today, we need tools that can provide an inclusive experience for everyone in the office and remote. Some technologies have been around for several years and rapidly gained acceptance during the pandemic, such as MURAL and Trello, which provide collaborative digital workspaces with real-time, multi-user capabilities. These flexible tools can adapt to any process and seek to reflect real-world experiences in the digital world.

Other technologies, such as augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR), were once on the fringes but are now frequently part of the workplace conversation—in part driven by mainstream names like Meta and Apple. The maturation of these technologies represent the real future, with the potential to better bridge the distance between the physical, remote, and digital worlds. While Meta made the metaverse part of the mainstream conversation, companies such as Spatial.io have focused on collaboration in the virtual world for some time. These technologies are quickly advancing, with Apple expected to release an AR/VR headset in 2022 and new entrants arriving almost monthly seeking to capitalize on the movement. Like it or not, the “virtual world” will quickly become the go-to model by which we can collaborate, connect, and engage.

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SEI Ventures team: Russ Kliman and Jennifer Ciotti