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January 15 2021 | Megan Bock Zarnoch

Is it myth or reality that remote work is going to halt innovation and collaboration in our workplaces? I want to clarify something up front. Usually when we say “innovation,” what immediately jumps to mind is technology. But the definition of innovation is much broader than that. So, apply it to all kinds of products, services, solutions, etc., across a wide range of organizations. Remote work halting innovation and collaboration is a concern we heard voiced by multiple insurers this year, especially since they depend on collaboration to help their organizations build deeper and wider relationships with their agents and brokers to develop more business. And the truth is, deciding whether this is a myth or a reality is tricky, because it's really up to the company and their organization. It is certainly a fact that remote work can make innovation and collaboration more challenging. It removes easy access to that organic, unstructured “white space” where conversations naturally happen: grabbing a cup of coffee, passing in the hallway, or chatting and building ideas after a meeting. However, the pandemic of 2020 has shifted the vast majority of work in the insurance space to remote – virtually overnight. Besides the added challenges, it also makes innovation and collaboration even more important. Numerous studies have shown that companies focused on innovation, both during and after a crisis, financially outperform the companies that do not, both during the crisis period as well as far into the future. So, it really is important that we do what we can to make sure this stays a myth. 

Remote MythbusterIt is also true that innovation doesn't happen in isolation. But a wonderful silver lining in 2020 is that the decades-long investments in digital transformation (which, frankly, have happened largely outside of the insurance space) have enabled us to remain connected rather than isolated. During 2020, we have been able to use tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, and online collaboration platforms like Miro to work together while we are apart. And the added benefit is that we can tap into the best resources for the topic, project, or relationship, regardless of location. That said, it's not enough just to have the tools available. We also need to create an environment that encourages innovation. The fastest way to derail innovation efforts is to have a fear or shame-based culture in which teams and employees are too afraid of making mistakes to offer new ideas. A courageous and specifically inclusive approach to ideation and doing business is really crucial – one where risk-taking (including the inevitable failures along the way to success) is rewarded and recognized. That's how we get the best ideas and bring them into action.  

Finally, make up for the gap in organic connection through a tried-and-true method of driving innovation – creating Networked Improvement Communities. This approach is widespread outside the insurance space, but it's something we should deploy here for our benefit and that of our organizations, staff, and customers. The objective is to create a community within your organization that is specifically dedicated to solving an identified problem. It can be outside the usual structures, teams, and siloes. That community works independently on that problem, but collaborates in sharing and building on one another’s solutions and ideas, driving innovation and creating deeper relationships across your organization. A great example is the global innovation effort in the scientific, medical, and pharma community to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has resulted in the fastest vaccine to market by leaps and bounds.  

SMA Call to Action:

Let's make sure that this is a myth for 2021. As a call to action, I’d offer the following three elements each company can use to ensure that remote work is NOT the end of innovation and collaboration in your organization:  

One: Get really intentional about assessing your culture and eliminating any roadblocks to innovation. Reward risk taking and curiosity. Make sure that you've got an inclusive environment where people are encouraged to challenge the status quo, try new ideas, and speak up (even at the risk of failure) to make sure that the best solutions for the situation are sourced and selected. Two: Continue to use the many digital tools available for connection to make sure that we don't stay isolated, even in a remote work environment. And three (and I think this might be the new one for most of our insurance partners): Get explicit about creating Networked Improvement Communities to connect your organization’s employees and leaders across siloes to solve a specific problem. They can work independently but collaboratively to really amplify the solutions. And that will create ripple effects, deepening those relationships beyond that specific project and allowing new ideas to form.  

This is how we make sure that the idea of remote work halting innovation and collaboration in the workplace is a myth in 2021, and that the reality is continued innovation and ongoing collaboration in our workplaces. Those are the workplaces we all want to join.   

For more information, watch our 30-minute On-demand Webinar, Myth or Reality: Strategies for Insurers in 2021


To learn more, please contact:
Megan Bock Zarnoch
Guest Author
Boundless Consulting Group