As the world endures a second wave of lockdowns to try to control the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of impact long social isolation will have on us as people.
Multiple studies have shown that mice become more aggressive if isolated and that in humans, long periods of isolation have an impact on the way our brain functions. Though writers like Virginia Woolf have linked solitude to an unleashing of creativity, it is far more common for loneliness to increase stress and the chance of premature death. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that totalitarianism found a fertile breeding ground among the lonely.
It is also starting to impact our ability to innovate, says Alan Cabello, founding partner at Spark Works, the Swiss innovation consultancy. Though, like many other businesses, Spark Works transitioned to online working this year, running its training and ideation sessions online. Yet, says Cabello, he is seeing reserves of creativity starting to dry up the longer we go on.
“When we are disconnected from other people we gradually lose our social ability. Our emotional intelligence decreases and being able to read other people is essential for innovation,” he says. Innovation teams thrive on interaction and exchanges of ideas. If we continue working in isolation, he warns “we will end up exhausting our innovation capabilities.”
Cabello sees four ways in which social distancing is having an impact on innovation teams.
1. Emotional intelligence decreases.
Design thinking is one of the watchwords of innovation, and this is all about understanding human behaviour — what makes something desirable for a user. What makes them need it. When you are designing a new process or product, you start from this human perspective then build the business case around it.
The need for emotional intelligence is step one. If you can’t read human behaviour, it is hard to have any insight on needs and desires.
Not only have coronavirus lockdowns made it hard to run many user testing sessions, but they are eroding our ability to understand other people.
2. Team trust decreases
High-performance innovation teams need strong connections and high levels of trust, says Cabello. “Innovation teams work under a lot of pressure. They don’t know if projects are going to work or not, but they still need to have high performance and motivation.”
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Effective innovation teams need to have a sense of bonding and a higher purpose. There is often an esprit de corps, a sense of “we’re all in this together”. Innovation teams often spend intense amounts of time together and typically spend a lot of time communicating. And while it is possible to do some of this remotely, says Cabello, over time some of the underpinnings of trust erode.
Some companies, of course, have always worked with a remote workforce. But, says Cabello, this works best when the work or the problem that is being solved is well-defined and everyone knows what they need to do.
When you have a high degree of uncertainty and change, however, it can be easier to work with a team that is physically together, says Cabello.
3. Home-working productivity is a mixed blessing
Working from home can mean getting much more done, without the distractions of a commute and co-workers. But being super-productive every minute isn’t necessarily a good thing mentally.
“You need some empty time in the day to switch between the times when you focus and time when you explore,” says Cabello. “We need time to switch between convergent and divergent thinking.”
Divergent thinking is associated with creativity — it’s what happens in brainstorming sessions and free writing. Convergent thinking is about logic, pattern recognition and problem-solving using stored information. Innovation requires both.
Cabello says Spark Works has put in place some rules to help the team avoid burnout.
- Keep calls to less than 45 mins
- No more than 6 calls a day
- If you are able to have an in-person meeting save this for doing creative work
- In online exchanges, go a bit deeper, take the trouble to open up the conversations to go further
- Double-check the perception of emotions — if someone looks upset, check how they are feeling. They may have been frowning for an unrelated reason, or it may be the opportunity to discuss something difficult but important
4. Pushing people to take risks is a delicate, emotional operation
Spark Works has been running plenty of online innovation workshops and these educational sessions for the most part work well, says Cabello. Sessions for developing new strategies are trickier.
“When you have 5-6 decisionmakers in a room and you need them to work together, to be creative, to think outside the usual and really push them a bit — that’s not possible to do online,” he says.
Corporate politics is built around light interpersonal cues. “Often it comes down to understanding when someone is uncomfortable and pushing them a little,” says Cabello.
Companies are still continuing to innovate, of course. Not only are services moving online, but the shift to sustainability is being taken up at great speed. But Cabello worries that an innovation workforce scarred by isolation won’t be able to think big enough.
“We are seeing some companies holding back,” he says. “Routine work can be shifted online but more creative stuff is being put on hold.”
There are some positives that could come out of the pandemic. The decrease in commuting, for example, and the realisation that many hour-long meetings could be handled just as easily in half an hour or even by email. More broadly, people and companies have never been so ready to consider doing this differently.
“We are realising what matters and what doesn’t,” says Cabello. “We are refocusing our energy.”
If we can manage not to lose our creative spark entirely, we could move forward fast.