Virtual Brainstorming for Remote and Hybrid Teams in the Future of Work

October 10, 2021

"Our software engineers and product designers must return to work full-time in the office." We'll lose our competitive advantage in innovation if we don't do something."

At the opening of the business's planning meeting on the post-vaccine return to work and the future of employment, Saul, the Chief Product Officer of a 1,500-employee enterprise software company, said this.

"Doing brainstorming via videoconference doesn't work nearly as well as in-person meetings," he continued. So, now that vaccines are available, allowing them to work digitally is out of the question.

If we don't return product people to full-time in-office employment, our competitors will swiftly catch up to us." He then sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and challenged anyone to challenge him.

I was facilitating the discussion as a consultant hired to assist the company in determining its return to office and long-term employment arrangements. It was the ninth time I'd been asked to do anything like this.

Over two-thirds of the executives in charge of the company's goods expressed some form of concern, with Saul being the most outspoken.

So, what is the source of these challenges with innovation, and what can be done to address them? My experience assisting more than a dozen firms in making the transition to a post-vaccine office return provides valuable insights for any leaders seeking a competitive advantage in the future of work.

If they don't stick to office-based innovation techniques, hybrid and even remote teams can acquire a significant innovation advantage. Instead, hybrid and remote teams can outperform in-person teams in terms of creativity by implementing best practices for innovation in the return to the office and the future of work.

Returning to the office full-time jeopardizes creativity

My reaction to Saul and the other leaders began with establishing a common goal: to maximize innovation in the most efficient and effective way possible. This overarching purpose was agreed upon by all product leaders.

Then I looked into how these leaders attempted to innovate throughout the lockdowns. They all said they tried to adapt their synchronous brainstorming method from the office to the new videoconference mode.

That is the crux of the issue. To adjust strategically to their new circumstances, none of them attempted to explore best practices in virtual innovation.

Instead, they attempted to force their office-based innovation processes on virtual labor. While understandable in the early phases of the lockdowns, it may appear strange that they would continue to use the same office-based toolbox throughout the pandemic's many months.

That is, in fact, what occurred.

As a result, as vaccines became widely used, these executives advocated for a full-time in-office schedule, despite the obvious risks. After all, even before the Delta variant's ascent, thorough polls of employee wishes for post-vaccine future work arrangements revealed that 25 to 35 percent favored entirely remote work.

As a result, 50-65 percent desired to return to work with a hybrid schedule that included one or two days on campus. Only 15 to 25% wanted to return to Monday through Friday 9-5 schedules.

Those employee goals contrast sharply with the needs of product leaders, the vast majority of whom desired to return to work full-time. According to pre-Delta surge surveys, 40-55 percent expected to look for a new job if they did not get their preferred working conditions.

Many have already resigned as a result of their bosses' attempts to push them back to work. Of course, the Delta version will drive many more people to quit owing to concerns about outbreaks: recent evidence suggests that decreasing vaccine immunity after 6 months reduces vaccine efficacy against Delta to 39%.

It goes without saying that having a huge chunk of your personnel leave as part of the Great Resignation, which is pushed by coercive measures to get them back to work, is not a good strategy to sustain an innovation advantage. That's why, in the face of widespread employee pushback and resignations, Google reversed its intention to bring all employees back to campus and instead allowed many to work full-time remotely.

For similar reasons, Amazon did the same.

Due to senior personnel leaving, major damages to employee morale and engagement, and having to revise the basics of their return to campus plans, these trillion-dollar corporations lost many billions through their self-defeating activities. If these top firms, with arguably the greatest leadership and rules, can muck up their return-to-office plans and jeopardize their innovation advantage, it's no surprise that executives of smaller companies with less resources do the same.

Dangerous judgment errors in the future of work: what's stopping innovation best practices?

Because of severe judgment errors known as cognitive biases, many leaders fail to adopt innovation best practices for the future of work. When analyzing possibilities, these mental blindspots, which often lead to wishful thinking, result in bad strategic and financial judgments.

They make leaders unable to resist following their instincts and personal preferences rather than depending on best practices when they return to work.

Functional fixedness is a risky judgment error that stymies innovation in the future of employment. We tend to ignore or intentionally reject other good practices, behaviors, and processes when we have a preconceived notion of what constitutes appropriate behavior, behavior, and process.

Even though new practices, behaviors, and processes would be a lot better fit for a changed environment and would be far more effective at solving our problems, our perspective of these functions is fixed and inflexible.

That's why, as a result of the March 2020 lockdowns and the fast transition to telework, so many leaders have failed to handle the difficulties associated with innovation in a strategic manner. They naturally and rightly focused on completing the organization's critical immediate duties, seeing this transition as a very brief emergency.

That's fine for a week or two in an emergency. COVID, on the other hand, endured for almost a year. As a result, they adapted their current "office culture" ways of engaging to remote work.

They didn't put in the effort to figure out what kind of culture, cooperation, and communication methods would work best in the virtual environment for innovation. As a result, they were unprepared for the hybrid and remote work environment of the future.

The not-invented-here syndrome is a second cognitive bias that is linked to functional fixedness. It's self-explanatory: many leaders despise methods that were not developed within their company.

They dismiss external best practices as not fitting their culture, style, or needs, even when adopting such methods would help them achieve their stated objectives considerably more effectively. Ironically, many who complain about how virtual work stifles innovation tend to stick to old-school, traditional methods of doing so.

Despite significant proof of their benefits, they fail to implement external and innovative best practices on innovation.

To return to work successfully and prosper in the future of work, you'll need to utilize research-based best practices to overcome cognitive biases. It entails a mostly hybrid strategy in which employees spend one to two days in the office while being able to work remotely as needed. If they are dependable and productive, a significant minority of employees should be able to work full-time from home.

By developing a culture, systems, and practices that promote remote work, that setup makes it easier for all employees to convert to full-time work from home if the need arises, such as during a variant surge. This best-practice structure will yield a number of advantages, including improved innovation and collaboration, the retention of top people, and the development of a flexible business culture, systems, and processes.

Hybrid and remote teams can benefit from virtual brainstorming

Brainstorming the old fashioned way

The classic technique to deliberate, non-serendipitous innovation is brainstorming. This entails putting a group of 4-8 people in a room and asking them to come up with new ideas on a pre-determined theme.

Everyone shares their ideas at first, with no criticism allowed. The ideas are then revised to remove duplicates and obvious non-starters after group members have run out of ideas. Finally, the group debates the remaining ideas before deciding which to pursue.

Participants in brainstorming sessions enjoy them and find them to be effective in producing ideas, according to behavioral science research. Scientists have identified two areas that contribute to the benefit in idea generation.

One involves idea synergy, which means that ideas shared by one participant help other participants generate ideas. Experiments reveal that when participants are trained to pay attention to the thoughts of others and focus on being inspired by these ideas, synergy effects are notably significant.

Another advantage is what academics call "social facilitation." That's the advantage of having social support while working on a common goal. When participants realize they'll be working on a common goal with their peers, they'll be more motivated.

Unfortunately, these advantages come at a price. Production blockage is one of the most serious issues.

Have you ever been in a brainstorming session and had what you thought was a wonderful idea, but someone else was speaking? Then the next person responded to that individual, and the conversation went in a completely other direction?

By the time you had a chance to speak, the notion had become irrelevant or redundant, or you had forgotten about it entirely.

If you've never had it happen to you, you're probably outgoing and optimistic. Production blocking is a difficult task for introverts.

It's more difficult for them to come up with ideas in a group brainstorming setting. They tend to think better in a calm place, alone or with only one other person.

They also have a hard time interrupting a conversation, which means their proposal is more likely to go unspoken.

People who are more gloomy than optimistic have a hard time brainstorming. Optimists process information verbally, spouting half-baked ideas on the spot.

That's ideal for brainstorming in the classic sense. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to think internally.

They feel compelled to think out their ideas to ensure that they are free of errors. Although brainstorming clearly allows for incorrect ideas, pessimists find it difficult to overcome their personality, much as introverts find it difficult to develop ideas in a noisy team setting.

A second fundamental difficulty for traditional brainstorming, evaluative fear, has a significant impact on pessimists. Junior group members are much more pessimistic and/or have a lesser social position, therefore they are fearful of sharing their thoughts openly due to social anxiety over what their peers will say.

Furthermore, while being told to express outlandish ideas, many people don't want to be labeled as odd or out of place.

Finally, team members who are conflict-averse and/or politically astute are hesitant to submit more problematic ideas that question existing norms and/or the territory associated with high-status team members, particularly the team leader. These are frequently the most inventive ideas, but they go unspoken.

Brainstorming groupthink is a problem that is related to evaluation apprehension. This refers to team members uniting around the most powerful people in the room's ideas.

Lower-power team members focus more on confirming and elaborating on the ideas of the more powerful participants during the idea generation stage, which is known as groupthink. When it comes to idea appraisal, groupthink leads to the more powerful's ideas receiving preferential treatment.

The size of the group is a final issue. In a standard brainstorming session, the more people you have, the less ideas you generate per person.

This loss of efficiency is attributed to a condition known as social loafing, according to researchers. The more people who participate, the more enticing it is for each person to work less hard on coming up with ideas.

They believe that they can get by with less work and engagement, and they are correct. As a result, research shows that the most effective size of traditional brainstorming groups for generating the greatest amount of original ideas per person is two.

As a result of these issues, multiple studies have found that traditional brainstorming is significantly less effective than alternative best practices at generating unique ideas. It's ideal for fostering team cohesion and collaboration, as well as making group members feel good about their contributions.

But don't kid yourself into thinking that by employing this strategy, you'll be able to maximize your inventiveness. Thus, traditional brainstorming is not the way to go if you want to use innovation to gain or maintain a competitive advantage.

When I mentioned these issues, Saul retorted that he had never encountered them. I pointed out that elite leaders, such as Saul, are rarely tested in this way.

Leaders are outgoing and optimistic because these personality traits help them lead. In product brainstorming sessions, leaders are the centers of power by definition: they can interrupt at any time and all groupthink coalesces around his ideas.

They don't feel social loafing because they own the outcomes of the brainstorming discussion and are hence highly motivated. It's a classic case of bias blindness, or our inability to recognize our own mental flaws.

In response, I pushed Saul, asking that we conduct an anonymous survey of his team to discover if any of these issues exist. He agreed to accept my challenge.

The poll found that his employees viewed production blocking and evaluation fear as severe issues that stymie traditional brainstorming, and Saul was willing to consider alternatives at the next planning meeting. Fortunately, most other product leaders have faith in peer-reviewed best practices and don't need to go to such lengths to obtain proof.

Brainstorming on the Internet

Attempting to undertake traditional brainstorming via videoconference is a poor alternative for the motivating presence of colleagues in a small conference room, reducing the social facilitation benefits. It suffers from the same drawbacks as traditional brainstorming. It's no surprise that the people in charge of innovation despise it.

Leaders must reject their functional fixation on synchronous team meetings for brainstorming instead of the losing proposition of videoconference brainstorming. They must use the most effective method of asynchronous virtual brainstorming.

Step 1: Come up with a good idea

Every team member generates their own ideas and enters them into a shared spreadsheet. You can do so using a variety of software platforms; for example, when I facilitate brainstorming sessions, I usually utilize a Google Form, which generates a Google Spreadsheet with results automatically.

During a digital co-working meeting, the group can input ideas to tap social facilitation. You all join a one-hour videoconference call, switch off your microphones but keep your speakers on, and video is optional (although preferable).

If someone has a clarifying question, they can use their microphone to ask it, but brainstorming out loud is not recommended. However, this is not necessary, especially if the team is geographically dispersed and coordination is difficult due to time zone variations.

According to research, in order to generate the maximum number of unique ideas, all team members should be taught to focus on generating as many novel ideas as possible, rather than the highest-quality ideas, and told that this is how they will be judged. Participants should also be encouraged to examine paradoxes in their innovative ideas, such as enhancing impact while saving expenditures.

Science has discovered that focusing on opposing aims promotes innovation.

To reduce evaluation anxiety, the submissions should be anonymised. The team leader, on the other hand, should be able to track each person's submissions for accountability purposes, as this helps maximize unique ideas.

Step 2: Organize your thoughts

The facilitator of the brainstorming meeting accesses the spreadsheet, removes duplicates and merges comparable ideas, categorizes the ideas, and distributes them to all team members. A subgroup of participants, or perhaps all of them, can access the Google Spreadsheet and collaborate on this procedure asynchronously.

If you use the latter method, create fictitious Gmail accounts to collaborate on the spreadsheet for the sake of anonymity.

Step 3: Assessing your concepts

After the ideas have been tidied up, all members of the team anonymously remark on and rank each one. In a group of six persons, each suggestion should receive five comments and evaluations.

The ratings should evaluate the idea's uniqueness, feasibility, and usefulness in at least three categories, each on a scale of 1-10. Additional ratings may be necessary depending on the circumstances of the brainstorming session.

Step 4: Revisions to the idea generation process

Team members go through another cycle of idea generation after commenting and rating ideas, either refining prior ideas based on criticism or contributing new ones inspired by what others came up with. In both circumstances, the method captures the benefits of synergy by collecting other team members' opinions.

Step 5: Cleanup of revised ideas

Cleaning up and categorizing the updated thoughts is the next stage. Follow the same steps as in step 2. Step 6: Evaluate the New Concepts

Then, in parallel to step 3, perform another round of commenting and rating, this time on changed ideas.

Step 6: Get together to talk about your ideas

If at all possible, a synchronous meeting to discuss the ideas is beneficial at this time. At this point, anonymity is unneeded because the concepts have obvious evaluations and comments.

Participants in the group select which ideas are the most important to move forward with right now, which should be put on the back burner or even rejected, and which should be put on the back burner or even discarded. They decide on the next stages for execution as part of this, giving responsibility for specific duties to different individuals.

For full-time virtual workers, this type of practical planning meeting is simple to hold online. Of course, hybrid teams can complete processes 1-6 virtually and then complete step 7 when they arrive at the office.

To avoid production obstruction, evaluation fear, groupthink, and social loafing, it's vital to avoid doing steps 1-6 at the office.

Instead of holding a meeting, you can achieve the same result by sending asynchronous communications. Having a meeting, however, decreases misinterpretation and confusion for more complicated and controversial new ideas, in my experience enabling virtual brainstorming.

Is virtual brainstorming effective?

Virtual brainstorming appears to overcome the most significant drawbacks of traditional in-person brainstorming sessions. The big question is this: does it work?

Digital brainstorming clearly outperforms in-person brainstorming, according to behavioral economics and psychology research. A study comparing virtual and in-person groups indicated that in-person groups were more satisfied with their collaboration.

The sensation, however, was deceiving: virtual brainstorming resulted in more ideas being generated. While in-person brainstorming may appear to be more enjoyable, it actually produces worse results.

Another group of researchers looked into the size of groups. It was discovered that the larger the group of participants, the more ideas were generated through electronic brainstorming.

This is due to the fact that electronic brainstorming is not affected by social loafing. Each participant works independently and is aware that they are responsible for the number of original ideas generated, with freshness judged by group members' ratings.

In fact, research shows that although in-person brainstorming produces less original ideas per person, computer brainstorming produces the reverse. That indicates that as the number of people increases, so does the amount of innovative ideas generated per person. This is most likely due to synergy, with a larger overall number of ideas prompting participants to come up with more new ones.

After the original brainstorming session is completed, virtual brainstorming has a hidden benefit. While traditional brainstorming leaves a far from comprehensive record of ideas due to sparse notes and hazy memories, scholars discovered that electronic brainstorming's complete record offers a significant benefit as a repository of innovative ideas.

Ideas that looked more practical and valuable in the past may appear less so in the future as circumstances change, and vice versa. As a result, the group can always go back and re-rank previous suggestions.

My experience putting it into practice for clients has yielded comparable results. Many participants, particularly the more outgoing, high-status, and optimistic ones, remark at first about how "dry" the procedure is.

They miss the excitement and participation that comes from having creative ideas flowing around the table.

More introverted individuals, on the other hand, quickly adapt to the process, finding it a welcome break from the cognitive overload of being in a noisy atmosphere where they can't hear themselves think. Also, more pessimistic and lower-status individuals benefit from not having to worry about being critiqued for their ideas and from not having to criticize the ideas of others during the evaluation stage.

Even extroverts tend to come around after two or three sessions. Even if unwillingly, they admit that the approach appears to generate more innovative ideas than traditional in-person brainstorming.

In fact, hybrid groups that have been educated in this method and have the choice of conducting steps 1-5 in person almost invariably prefer virtual brainstorming for these first steps while doing step 6 in the office.

This method generates the greatest amount of original ideas, giving the company an advantage in terms of creativity. It also gave the best experience for the majority of the group members, balancing the needs of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, lower-status and higher-status individuals.

Virtual brainstorming is especially advantageous for team leaders who sensibly prioritize focusing on integrating introverts, pessimists, and lower-status team members into the team – which is more challenging than integrating extroverts, pessimists, and higher-status team members.

"All right, I'll give you virtual brainstorming," Saul said less unwillingly than before when I explained the advantages of this method over in-person brainstorming. "I'll have to experiment with it with my teams to see how we can make it work for us."

He kept his word, and over the next few weeks, until the third planning meeting, he performed some serious experimenting. His team was astounded by how many new ideas they were able to generate utilizing this novel process.

Their creative energies seemed to be yearning to be released, and our process for intentional virtual brainstorming provided the means to do so.


If you want to obtain a competitive advantage in the future of work, you must reject the temptation to use pre-pandemic innovation methods. Instead, research-based best practices for innovation in the return to work and future of work, such as virtual brainstorming, should be adopted.

Your hybrid and remote teams will be able to acquire a true competitive advantage in innovation as a result of this.

Thanks to Gleb Tsipursky at Business 2 Community whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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