Can social distancing optimise innovation in a 21st-century pandemic?

At such a difficult time for everyone, when protecting life and health is the priority, it is not yet clear what the real impacts of the pandemic will be on economies, companies and individuals. What is clear is that it is crucial to find ways to mitigate these impacts, innovating to generate efficiency gains, save costs and find new ways to increase revenues as quickly as possible.

An interesting analysis is one that considers the effects of social distancing and remote work on the ability of individuals and organisations to think about and propose creative or innovative solutions for their lives and work processes.

Let’s look at some aspects of this relationship and whether we can really envisage new possibilities in the context of a 21st-century pandemic:


More efficient communication on all fronts

In times of greater social distance, although face-to-face communication is diminished, we see a dizzying growth in virtual communication through virtual meetings, messaging applications, chats and corporate platforms. It seems reasonable to assume that the effectiveness, assertiveness and even the productivity of these meetings are greater than the tedious face-to-face meetings in companies and the often-unproductive hallway meetings.

After all, we all enter virtual meetings with a well-discussed agenda, there is a clear moderator and leader, and some technological limitations mean it isn’t as appealing for us to stay “connected” in the same environment and on the same topic for long without realizing there has been value creation.

Everything converges to be quick, assertive and deliberative.

From the above, an interesting paradox arises here: social detachment and remote work, which, at first glance, reduces communication between people, leads to more effective and productive communication! It seems reasonable to think that this more assertive communication process can boost the diffusion, discussion and prioritisation of ideas and support the complex processes of project management.


True co-creation

We have never seen so many teams created, so many multifunctional squads, so many meetings between organisations and their customers and suppliers in search of solutions! A direct and powerful relationship emerges to promote and increase the search for innovation: teamwork.

Innovation processes are processes based on teamwork. Even those that stem from a particular “eureka” moment of a creative mind or inside a cold and isolated laboratory will go through discussions of prioritisation, adjustments, feasibility and implementation. And the latter are processes based on multidisciplinary discussion.

So many people together, with different points of view and specialities, are the fuel for new ideas about outdated and inefficient processes, not only disruptive but also incremental. Certainly, there will be issues to be explored within the teams, in the department, in the company as a whole and even in the entire value chain, generating the long sought-after co-creation.


Idleness too is the mother of creativity

As the philosopher Domenico de Masi once said: “Idleness can turn into violence, neurosis, addiction and laziness, but it can also amount to art, creativity and freedom. It is in leisure time that we spend most of our days and that is where we must focus our potential.”

Whether you agree with this philosophical position or not, everyone agrees that the social distancing imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic originated a certain “free time” or “idleness”.

It is common to see people complaining about idleness and boredom, but, if well managed, this free time can lead to new ideas, new products and impactful improvements not only for corporations, but also for our lives.

Who never woke up in the morning and had that flash about how to solve a problem or even create a product? It seems that a fresh head in the early hours may be more common than you think in this period of social distancing.


Disruption in the ‘classic’ value chains

At this time of pandemic, closed borders and the exacerbation of nationalist behaviours, there are several studies on the disruptions in traditional value chains and the consequent opportunities that arise from these discontinuities.

Commercial flows are interrupted, tariff and non-tariff barriers proliferate at the same exponential rate of the contamination, and people (still agents of the traditional value chains) have reduced mobility. It is imperative to rethink new distribution channels, develop new suppliers and understand how to integrate technology into our own value chain.

These disjunctions, or at the very least, “disruptions”, to established value chains will arise in any and all interactions during the pandemic. It is up to the best-informed professional to understand the triggers of these discontinuities and use them in favour of creative, innovative and optimising solutions for the “tired” and traditional value chains.


More time to search for knowledge

Isolation and social distancing caused many people to work remotely and reduce their work hours, which makes it possible to search for new knowledge. With the support of technology and the dissemination of content, we have many sources available at the click of a button (although some are unsubstantiated and of low quality, but since this is the cost of technological diffusion, it is up to each one to choose what seems reliable or robust).

Suddenly we can read books that we didn’t have time for and take that course that we dreamed of, in a virtual way and in the comfort of home. There is no need to emphasise that in order to innovate or optimise processes and products, we must be capable and trained in current business models and processes.

So, during this period of greater isolation and social distance, people and employees are studying more and will therefore improve their critical and cognitive skills. Bingo! More prepared people will of course look for new opportunities for the processes, products and organisations with which they are involved.

But just studying and honing your skills isn’t enough. You must seek quality sources and put knowledge into practice! Only in this way will we be effective transforming agents of society.


A 21st-century sea of opportunities

We are therefore in a huge sea of opportunities for innovation, whether in terms of better managing processes already underway or even promoting and engaging people in bolder initiatives.

It is up to each of us to take advantage of our social distance, be it in remote work or in adapted work in our companies, and seek more effective communications, work in teams, set free our creativity, criticise the value chain of our organisations and put knowledge into practice.

Difficult? Perhaps at first glance, yes. But we have all the technological and communicational potential of the 21st century at our fingertips. It is up to us to know how to use it and build on it.

Let us start by being gradually more social (note the paradox!) and at the same time critical about organisational processes. Innovation is the result of necessity, but also of critical thinking and of our individual and collective capacity to imagine new scenarios.

    Adriano Clary, Brazil Partner, Managing Director at Inovatie


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