New Way of Working

How does virtual collaboration influence innovation processes?

In times of pandemic, virtual team collaboration has gained tremendous momentum. The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO has now investigated how the "new normal" affects our creative and innovation processes. The most interesting results at a glance.

 

Corona as a digitization booster

According to the IOA survey, almost two-thirds of companies already had a functioning infrastructure for virtual collaboration before the pandemic. But as the new work structure took on additional dimensions in 90 percent of respondents, many companies (37 percent) did not implement the appropriate hardware, software and processes necessary to form virtual teams until the pandemic hit. "There is a great willingness to use digital platforms, to enter into collaborations, to work together across industries and to quickly find new solutions," says Prof. Wilhelm Bauer, Institute Director of Fraunhofer IAO.

Prof. Wilhelm Bauer, Head of Fraunhofer IAO | Copyright: Fraunhofer IAO

Positive effect on innovation performance

One in three companies succeeded in developing new or improved products or services in the pandemic year - and more frequently than previously planned. Half of the companies surveyed were able to fulfill their plans as planned. The "new normal" also brought innovations in internal employee collaboration and decision-making with above-average frequency. And one in four companies took the pandemic as an opportunity to reorganize their relationships with their business partners. Intensive virtual collaboration only had a negative effect on the filing of patents: 84 percent of the companies were able to fulfill their previously established plans. However, 13 percent achieved less than previously expected in this respect.

Innovation processes were strengthened

Around a third of the companies were able to generate more ideas for new products and services in 2020 than in 2019. Just as many recorded progress when it came to the efficient realization of innovative ideas - these companies were able to record time and cost savings in particular: Coordination deadlines were met more frequently, the expertise of colleagues could be obtained at short notice thanks to virtual communication channels, and work per se was more fact-oriented than before. However, 36 percent of those surveyed had to concede that they were able to provide fewer training courses for employees than planned in order to strengthen the company's overall innovation capability.

Innovation networks have suffered

In 2020, innovation was an internal affair: Collaborations with competitors, consulting firms, universities and public research institutes were scaled back during the pandemic. Only with their customers and suppliers did companies coordinate more often during the pandemic to get innovations off the ground.

Better innovation climate thanks to virtual collaboration

The pandemic year showed companies the innovative power of their workforce. In one in three companies, their own employees were more involved in virtual processes than they had been in 20219. Almost a quarter of the managers surveyed found that employees who tended to remain invisible in face-to-face meetings now also had their say in virtual teams. Also encouraging: In 59 percent of the companies, the workforce is now more receptive to change. Within a team, members were even more likely to develop new ideas and actively work on their realization. In short, Corona made us more flexible and strengthened our commitment.

What remains? Home office has a future!

The pandemic has given a major boost to digital communications in German companies. According to the ILO survey, about 80 percent of companies plan to continue relying on virtual collaboration for internal and external communications. "Companies grappled with the question of how much 'new normal' there should and can still be when the restrictions imposed by the pandemic are relaxed or eliminated altogether. The specific corporate culture alone is then decisive for the right degree of flexible working time models, leadership at a distance or virtual collaboration, because it has now been proven that 'purely virtual' is possible everywhere," says study leader Dr. Clemens Striebing from the Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CERRI) at Fraunhofer IAO, summarizing the survey results. In other words, location-independent working - especially in the home office - will remain with us in the future.

Text: Susanne Widrat

Dr. Clemens Striebing of the Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CERRI) at Fraunhofer IAO | Copyright: Fraunhofer IAO