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The celebrated writer Milan Kundera once observed that “business has only two functions: marketing and innovation.” As much of the world’s population suddenly found itself working from kitchen tables, garden sheds, and spare bedrooms, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic, the latter – innovation – got lost in the shuffle. 

But now, nearly a year after the pandemic began, experts are warning of the very real dangers of overlooking innovation. Namely, businesses being left behind in the rearview mirror permanently. 

A recent Paper Giant study commissioned by Atlassian found that an “innovation drought” is a very real threat for distributed workforces. A separate academic study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, warned of a widespread “innovation deficit” – with potentially company-crushing results.  

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So what exactly is the problem? What’s stopping workforces from innovating, trailblazing, and trendsetting as much as they used to? According to the Atlassian/Paper Giant study, a major contributing factor has been a dramatic decline in day-to-day organic collaboration. Sure, we’re jumping on video calls so frequently that many of us are fighting serious screen fatigue from the endless “Zoom doom.” But what we’re missing are the organic encounters made within a physical office space – and that’s having a knock-on effect in terms of innovation too. 

What is a culture of innovation?

“Take the lack of chance hallway meetings and watercooler discussions for example,” writes Leisa Reichelt, Atlassian’s Head of Research and Insights in her analysis of the Paper Giant study. “These may seem frivolous but there’s a feeling these serendipitous moments often lead to innovation opportunities.”

How we got innovative about innovation

The message is simple: collaboration is key if you want to innovate. And innovation is key if you want your business to progress. 

In this context, Atlassian’s very own ShipIt – a popular, company-wide creativity contest for teams – has taken on even more significance in a remote workplace. It has also had to adapt. 

“When everyone started working from home, a lot of companies simply adopted the ‘lift and shift’ model,” says Christine Dela Rosa, Atlassian’s Brand Lead for Ways of Working. “They said: ‘We were doing A, B and C before, so how do we do A, B and C remotely?’ Atlassian realized pretty quickly that wasn’t necessarily going to work, so we started looking at making appropriate changes to our habits and rituals in order to get to the same results, even if it involved going via D, E, and F.”

From hackathon to quarterly creativity fest

ShipIt began in 2005 as a standard hackathon: a dedicated 24-hour period where staff could put down their day jobs and tackle a fun side-project of their choosing, like a condensed version of Google’s famous “20% time.”

But what started as 14 developers arguing over bug fixes in a cramped Sydney office has now evolved into a bona fide global innovation contest, with nearly 4,000 Atlassians participating across more than 20 cities in 11 countries. 

The core ShipIt principle remains the same, though. Small teams are formed, often consisting of colleagues who don’t usually collaborate, and a specific problem is tackled. “Find what inspires you,” say the official instructions. “Develop that dream feature. Smash your nemesis bug. Or, maybe just upgrade racks in the bike room.”

At the end of the 24 hours, each team creates a three-minute presentation for their project, and finalists are chosen to compete for a selection of awards including the coveted Founders Prize and People’s Choice Award.

“It’s a quarterly event, and we’ve just completed our 50th contest,” says Philip Braddock, Atlassian’s Global Lead for ShipIt. “The basic premise is that you can fix any problem related to the company. It can be customer-facing or internal-facing, and anything is fair game. Once, somebody invented a clever tray to hold your laptop in the restroom, while another time, a team came up with a prototype of Jira Service Desk. That was genuinely somebody’s ShipIt project, and it went on to become a major revenue-generating product for the company.” 

Those aren’t the only stand-outs from past ShipIts. Veteran Atlassians talk wistfully of the “Stache Bar” – a stylish speakeasy built within an empty storage room and concealed behind a fake bookcase – while other successes have included the identification of ethically-sourced clothing for the Atlassian Foundation, and the creation of ex-pat guides for newly transferred Atlassians. And all manner of software successes, natch.

“The really good projects end up on the technical teams’ road maps for future development,” says Braddock. “ShipIt is a cultural strength for us, but it’s also a business strength. It makes cash in the long term, because many of these ideas are seriously good.” 

Adapting ShipIt for a remote workforce

Like pretty much every aspect of office life, ShipIt was heavily impacted by the dramatic switch to distributed teams. Those in charge of the initiative found themselves in the bizarre position of having to innovate the innovation competition. 

“Even before Covid, innovation was extremely important to Atlassian, because when you stop innovating, you stop growing,” says Dela Rosa. “Covid was another challenge to get through, but we realized that ShipIt wasn’t going to be a part of the problem. In fact, it could actually provide a number of solutions.”

Braddock agrees, even going so far as to say that the much-loved contest is now even stronger.      

“24 hours of opportunity”: behind the scenes of ShipIt

“ShipIt has had to go completely remote, of course, but that means you can now literally join any team in any office anywhere, from the U.S. West Coast to India,” he says. “We’ve now mandated pre-recorded presentations at the end of the 24-hour period too, which makes them better. Plus, it gives us a really valuable ideas repository to go back into and mine in the future.”

Since going remote in the first quarter of 2020, ShipIt has continued to produce a number of genuinely useful prototypes. For example, the Answers Anywhere Chrome extension, which won the ShipIt 50 “Team Anywhere Award” last December, makes it easier for users to get help within a browser without switching contexts. Using a Halp Chrome extension, users can search for answers to frequently asked questions, contribute their own answers, or even open a ticket.

There’s also one of Dela Rosa’s personal favorites from past ShipIts: a nudge bot to tell you when to take breaks. 

“It’s a simple concept, but it’s so useful when you’re working from home,” she says. “Without colleagues physically around you, it’s tempting to work longer hours and never take proper breaks. This fixes that. It tells you when you need to step away from your computer and for how long. And we could totally productize it for customers too.” 

How to innovate with a remote workforce: 7 ideas

In the age of cloud, it’s easier than ever to reap the benefits of remote work

The end of the office doesn’t have to mean the end of innovation – if, that is, you harness some of these tactics.

1. Fill your collaborative tool kit

Don’t limit your team to just Zoom or email. Introduce multiple platforms (like Slack and Trello), so each employee can find what suits their communication style best. 

2. Pinpoint and share problems

That’s the quickest way to focus on innovating solutions. For the Answers Anywhere Chrome extension, the team of developers and product managers were trying to ease the pain point of having to leave an app to search for help.  

3. Create innovation time

Google’s “20% Time” and Atlassian’s 24-hour ShipIt are successful for a reason. Declare and ringfence innovation time to give your staff freedom to create.  

4. Embrace asynchronous working

Diversity allows for wider contribution: not everybody has to be sitting in the same meeting at the same time. Pre-recorded videos with asynchronous feedback in a Google doc or Confluence page (on a deadline to ensure input) is one way to try this.   

5. Create a safe space to approach leaders

The best (and most fun) virtual team building activities for 2021

A key issue with remote working is that both leaders and employees feel more distant from each other. Creating a safe space to approach superiors with innovative ideas can be extremely valuable. 

6. Praise liberally

It’s hard for people to innovate and produce good work when it seems invisible. Digital pats on the back and public recognition remain just as valuable in a remote workplace. Kudos can help with this. Of course, shout-outs over Slack or during meetings are always welcome, too.

7. Make work-in-progress more visible

Platforms like Confluence, Google Docs, and Trello can help streamline innovation, alongside digital whiteboarding tools like Miro and Mural.

We should be able to stumble onto colleagues’ work in the digital realm, just like we used to catch it out of the corner of our eyes as we passed their desks,” says Atlassian’s Reichelt. This also means resisting the temptation to restrict access to documents unless it’s absolutely necessary to keep it private.

Remember that great ideas can come from all over the company – make it easy to find them, share them, and build on them.

How innovation can thrive in the age of virtual work