The office has changed, and it’s unlikely to return to the way it was before Covid-19 struck.

I don’t think it will disappear completely as working from home becomes a long-term trend, but I do think that a new model will emerge that includes spaces for people to connect and innovate. And I think leaders will need new skills to drive the organisational change necessary to ensure their people are productive and embrace a culture of innovation in this new work environment.

There’s a lot of debate about whether innovation can still happen if we’re working remotely and not all together in an office. How we work will certainly be different in the future, but I believe we’ll still achieve innovation: what’s important is that we have all the ingredients of innovation, not just how we connect.

Working from home is great for some jobs, but not for all. We need to think about what each job needs first, and then what the people doing it need to be happy and productive. Innovation can’t happen if people are demotivated or can’t collaborate. This is the expert advice of Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, a psychologist and an expert on the future of work.

Lynda joined technology entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa and I for a recent episode of our Incremental to Exponential podcast, where we look at how big companies can innovate to grow. We discussed Vivek’s and my new book, “From Incremental to Exponential - how large companies can see the future and rethink innovation” and Lynda’s work on the workplace of the future.

During our conversation, Lynda said that people who need to connect and talk to each other to co-operate or to spark off innovative ideas may need to spend some of their time in the office. She told us that she believes we’ll end up with a model that brings together remote work and creative office spaces in which we can create those crucial connections. The old-fashioned office model is gone for good and what will replace it is a hybrid of working from home and creative office spaces that inspire innovation.

There are some jobs for which being in an office is important: you need cooperation or the serendipity of just bumping into people and chatting sparks an idea. While many of us are missing that spontaneous office interaction, Lynda agreed with me that our ingenuity as humans and the advance of technology may very well help us create those opportunities to spark innovation in other ways. “The sort of work that I’ve been doing, where we have been joining up maybe 200,000 people at a time to talk about issues over a couple of days, has been pretty amazing. So, I agree that technology’s really going to step up here,” she said.

But Vivek pointed out that there is a lot of work to be done to close the gap with technology. He’s concerned that the human connection needed to form bonds and ignite ideas is missing from many remote-only working or learning environments. When he was lecturing before the pandemic, his students would come to him with their start-up ideas each semester. This time, after a semester of remote learning, there’s not been one world-changing idea from his students.

To find out how we can encourage innovation when we can’t connect face to face, we need to look at how successful leaders make innovation possible. In our book, Vivek and I talk about companies like Google and 3M giving their people time within working hours to focus on innovation. They build this into their workplace culture by making room for innovation. This is what we must do in the future, supported by technologies that will allow us to replicate these kinds of ‘office watercooler’ connections. One way to do this is for leaders to call their people just to chat, with no agenda, as they would normally do when stopping by someone’s desk to check in with them.

Lynda says we can also do this by giving people permission to take time away from electronic messages such as email, chats and social media, to just think or play around with ideas. We must be mindful of the need to inspire people to be creative in their thinking, as this builds a culture of innovation.

Leaders need specific skills for this new world of work to encourage innovation and productivity, and to drive and manage change:

  • Co-creation. As Lynda says, we need to build co-creation processes into companies so that everyone, from the receptionist to the CEO, can feel empowered to innovate to drive organisational change
  • Flexibility. Change is constant and there’ll be more disruption in the future, as Vivek points out. We’ll see new technologies and more innovation than we ever have before. So, we need to keep learning and improving our skills, but we also have to be able to unlearn the things we no longer need
  • Resilience. Resilience is especially important because this culture shock we are going through will continue. As Lynda says, Covid-19 has been a stress test of individuals, families, communities and organisations. The danger is that, rather than people ‘working from home’, they find themselves ‘living at work’ and at greater risk of burning out. We need to be aware of these issues so we can intervene. If people are burned out and over-stretched, they’re very unlikely to be innovative.

The spotlight is firmly on leadership because great leaders are those who are focused on innovation. They’re deliberate in making it a part of their strategic management agenda. They pay attention to culture, because having the right culture results in people doing the right things to create great outcomes. It’s great leaders who create the networks for co-creation and collaboration.


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