"Excellence and innovation are arguably the foundation of our greatest contributions.” Those are the words of Dr. Dawna Ballard, a professor of chronemics at the University of Texas at Austin. According to Dr. Ballard, companies today are thinking about productivity all wrong, and as a result, are struggling to create that elusive “Next Big Idea.” And while most companies realize something needs to change, they’re not sure what.
It all comes down to a problem of flexibility—or more accurately, lack of flexibility. Too often, employees are so burnt out from their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities that they are unable to dedicate any meaningful portion of their workweek to long-term ideas. According to our own research, 34 percent of millennials say that the structure of their workday makes it challenging to perform in a sustainable way over time, and 31 percent are struggling to perform optimally in their roles. And really, what is the incentive for these folks to focus on innovation? Employees are rarely recognized or rewarded for “thinking” contributions due to the traditional ways in which we tend to measure performance and productivity (i.e. hours clocked or time spent at one’s desk).
That's why carving out time and space for your employees to innovate is just as important as celebrating the ideas they dream up.
Here at Werk, we host full-day hackathons at least on a quarterly basis so our entire team can come together and work collaboratively. We prioritize collaboration days not just to develop our next big idea, but so our team can enjoy a mental reprieve from their day-to-day obligations, which is vital to their long-term success, and ultimately, the company’s as well.
Ron Ashkenas, author of Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done, points out the paradox of companies who don’t grant their employees on-the-clock innovation time: "Most firms want their people to stay focused on today’s business—and only work on innovation in their spare time," he writes for Harvard Business Review. "So in the end, it’s a mixed message: ‘We want you to innovate, but only after you’ve done your real job.’"
As a case study for on-the-clock innovation, Ashkenas describes a divisional leadership team that spent every Friday morning focusing on ways to drum up business for the following year—and found success "by carving out the time and reinforcing to each other the legitimacy of working on something without a short-term payoff."
Of course, companies want their employees to innovate organically as well—without being prompted by a formal collaboration day or hackathon. While employers must be cognizant of assigning realistic goals so employees can independently focus on innovation, there are a number of location- and time-based flexibility modifications that can remove some of the scheduling and environmental barriers to innovation.
One way companies can facilitate ongoing innovation is by giving employees access to location independence and/or location variety to focus on “maker” time or heads-down work. Remote, for instance, gives employees the location independence they need to optimize their productivity, while DeskPlus offers location variety that can get folks away from office distractions for a predetermined portion of the workweek.
Consider time-based flexibility modifications as well. Are your employees too overloaded with meetings to focus on projects that require deep thought? Do they have the ability to capitalize on the times they are most productive? Would there be a better time for them to work, when there are fewer distractions? TimeShift, for example, allows employees to shift their working hours to take advantage of a quiet office before or after the conventional workday, which can facilitate deeper creativity.
All six flexibility types empower employees to maximize their productivity—and, as a result, make both physical and brain space to innovate. That’s why structured flexibility is one of the easiest and most effective ways for employers to stay on the cutting edge of innovation, and, ultimately, to realize that “Next Big Idea.”