The work-from-home innovation drought

Key takeaways

  • Many companies are adopting ‘work from home’ models following their success during COVID-19.
  • The pandemic-induced economic downturn may not necessarily be stifling innovation, but a lack of water cooler talk and casual communication could.
  • Organisations need to find a way to decrease the amount of time spent in structured meetings and increase opportunities for people to be creative.

A client recently told me, “Our team has a small indoor plant that someone takes for their desk at home and, next time they’re in the office, they pass it onto another team member. It’s a fun way to bring about a sense of connection and belonging.”

It’s also an interesting segue into innovation in the face of a global pandemic.

Australia has had a darn big focus on innovation over the last five years. If the 2016 ‘jobs and growth’ federal election campaign isn’t burnt into your memory, you may be familiar with #InnovationNation, the $50 million innovation fund, or the Federal Government’s Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation plan.1 Though we’re now focused on the immediate economic shock of COVID-19, something else is lurking in the shadows that’s poised to get in the way of the post-pandemic recovery.

According to a recent study by Atlassian on the impact of COVID-19 on ways of working, the world’s largest work-from-home experiment could be stifling our innovation and holding the nation back from fulfilling its ambitions.2

Innovation in a downturn

It’s not all doom and gloom: Australia has seen a whole heap of creativity and resilience demonstrated by small businesses responding to the pandemic and economic conditions. Some local cafés have diversified to sell gourmet ingredients (if you didn’t make banana bread or sourdough, did you even do lockdown?) while healthcare workers have shifted to doing virtual consults.

Innovation can thrive in times of profound upheaval. We only have to look back at the Global Financial Crisis, which saw the birth of Uber, AirBnB and WhatsApp.3

However the issue lies with the big end of town. Large companies in Australia account for 0.2 percent of all business but contribute 44 percent to national GDP.4 And, with much of their workforce at home, the country could be on the precipice of an oncoming innovation drought.

Before the pandemic hit, PwC’s Global Innovation 1000 study found that research and development investment amongst the world’s top spenders has been increasing significantly. And the Australian Government recently committed to AU$2 billion to the RDTI scheme, calling research and development and the adoption of digital technology “critical to Australia’s future prosperity.”5

The challenge is how this translates on the ground in the move to remote work.

Remote structure and meeting fatigue

In the Atlassian study, 51 percent of knowledge workers were found to be attending more pre-organised meetings than before, while 31 percent are spending less time talking informally with their colleagues. This has limited the water cooler conversations and serendipitous encounters that spark new ideas.

On top of that, connection and communication have become more intentional and deliberate. Meeting invites are carefully curated, and meetings have gradually become more efficient to limit fatigue. This is evidenced by the 28 percent of survey respondents saying that there are fewer or worse collaboration opportunities with remote work, and it is stifling creativity.

We asked PwC Australia’s employees similar questions as part of a firm-wide consultation we ran to co-design our future of work. The results? From more than 2,700 responses, 31 percent believed they were less creative and innovative at home and that they spent 61 percent of their time in more of those pre-organised meetings.

The need for innovative practices

It’s time to think about how current remote work practices, policies, and tools can be better adapted to encourage innovation. There’s a role for leaders to play in this, by helping their people build informal networks beyond the physical office.

Here are a few ways that innovation can be fostered:

  • Factor in short periods of time at the start of virtual meetings for a spot of chit chat;
  • Use virtual collaboration software for idea sessions;
  • Work on shared documents online (instead of always on a call) so that people can put some deep thought into their contributions; and
  • Provide mechanisms for providing feedback and sharing ideas beyond formal meetings.

Innovation needn’t fall victim to the rise of remote working. It could do a world of good for the prospects of innovation if more people are empowered to contribute at pace and at scale, as well as affording an opportunity for those not comfortable participating in a closed room of loud office talkers.

Underpinning all of this is the need to continue to foster strong working relationships, psychological safety, community and collaboration so that the creative juices can flow more easily.

Humans throughout history have proven the ability to adapt through change and some of the best innovation has arisen in times of adversity. Consider 2020 (and all of its apocalyptic memes) as the catalyst for creating opportunities in your business to define the way forward — for yourself, and Australia — post-pandemic.

So go ahead and innovate (just don’t kill the plant).


Dr Ben Hamer

Ben is a director and drives the Future of Work market agenda, PwC Australia


Lawrence Goldstone

Lawrence is lead partner for the Future of Work, PwC Australia