Our journey towards the isolation economy is well underway as workers are getting increasingly comfortable working from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted. As working from home becomes the new normal, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home.

Today we are forced into working from home by a once-in-a-generation pandemic, but many of our isolation behaviors will persist once the coronavirus is behind us. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance productivity in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do and may suffer as a result.

Innovation never happens in Isolation:

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish. Breakthroughs never come from lone inventors who toil alone in a dusky lab. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. For this reason, local coffee shops and office cafeterias have always been hubs of creativity and innovation.

Increases in population density have always led to a higher rate of idea generation, productivity, and economic output. Cities are where innovation happens, and this is due to the increased opportunity for the exchange and clash of concepts. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localized. Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation. Similarly, other cities have become centers for innovation for automobiles, banking, financial services, and other industries.

Innovation only happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are working from home, you have fewer collaborative and chance encounters, and the rate of innovation suffers.

When workers are isolated, co-workers are unable to have unstructured and spontaneous discussions that serve as the root of innovation. Yes, you can have productive meetings using Zoom. But the casual conversation you have while walking in and out of a conference room or meeting someone in the lunchroom doesn’t happen, and those are the encounters that often lead to flashes of creativity and innovation.

But innovation is still possible. Today, even potential vaccines for coronavirus, designed to end our seclusion, are being developed in isolation. But vaccine development is progressing at a rapid rate because scientists around the world are and sharing their research. This collaboration is critical for allowing advances to being built on top of one another.

How a Networked Community Created The Internet

There are ways you can create massive and world-changing innovations while working from home, but you need to be deliberate about it. Since you will always need collaboration and idea-sharing for innovation to happen, you need to learn how to do so without the benefit of a physical cluster.

The best way to innovate in a remote environment is by creating a community of people who work on solving a problem independently, but collaboratively. Such communities, called Networked Improvement Communities, have been responsible for some of the most breathtaking innovations. As an example, take the development of The Internet, the most significant creation of our time.

The Internet was created through idea sharing and networked improvement. Designed by a group of pioneers working independently across universities and research institutions around the world, it was driven by a common desire to have different computers connected to each other. Creating the Internet required a high degree of information sharing, and its development was guided by a manifesto that was adopted voluntarily by a diverse set of innovators who shared in the common goal.

Networked improvement communities require a shared goal or shared area of interest and require multiple people working, usually independently, toward developing solutions to achieve the common goal—the communities need to agree to share progress with others. The network as a whole then uses what they learn from each member, and this boosts the collective knowledge of all participants and gets the entire community closer to achieving the shared goal. This is how breakthroughs are most likely to occur.

In a remote work environment, you can replicate this structure by encouraging the creation of your own Networked Improvement Community, where independent teams collaborate. Having different groups work on a problem gives you a better chance of success because any of several paths can result in the breakthrough. The key, however, is that everybody shares their progress and developments, without which the community breaks down. Innovation thrives at these idea-sharing sessions, which serve to advance the efforts of all participants.

Forward-thinking organizations across health care, education, technology, and other sectors have created Networked Improvement Communities to boost innovation. Understanding and implementing these innovation communities in your organization can enhance your ability to develop significant new offerings that can change the world.

Old Innovation Models Fail in a New Environment:

The need for idea-sharing and collaboration for innovation is a constant that will never change. But the rate of developing breakthroughs does not have to suffer because of reduced personal interaction. Working from home has an advantage because geographical clustering and old-school collaboration are less relevant, and your community is not restricted to coffee shop meetings. When you connect via Zoom, a collaborator across the globe is as close to you as your neighbor.

The Isolation Economy creates new ways to share ideas and be creative, and those of you that take advantage of these new methods will become the leaders of tomorrow. You have a unique opportunity to create your innovation community filled with members who may or may not be employees of your organization. All that is required is that they share the same broad goal and commit to sharing their progress along the way.

You will have to learn some new rules along the way, such as your community should be focused and present as members share their developments. People are easily distracted and unengaged when interacting remotely. But with the right set of people in your community and a collective desire to create something new, the rate of innovation can thrive, even as teams work remotely.