Recently, Infotech tried something new for the hundredth time in the last year. We hosted an afternoon of brainstorming. On the clock. For fun.
Instead of spending the day heads down, working on routine projects, Infotechers spent the afternoon collaborating and coming up with new ideas. Some of them might turn into future projects, some might not, but the success was in the excitement of the process.
It all started in March, about six months after our last spirit-boosting, all-employee virtual event, our annual Hackathon. We were trying to keep employees engaged, but we had a couple problems:
Burnout was creeping back in and permeating the workday, stemming from the lack of conversational feedback, spontaneous collaboration and camaraderie often found in an office setting.
But even so, we’d heard loud and clear that working remotely - or at least in a hybrid model - is becoming the preference for most of our people, so virtual interaction and engagement wasn’t going away anytime soon.
We began thinking about what it would look like in a few months when employees had the option of working from headquarters again and found ourselves facing some hard questions: what else could we possibly do to counter the burnout until then? How would we keep everyone engaged in a hybrid work environment with so many people choosing to work from home more often?
It seemed like a good time for a practice run to find some answers.
Normally, in the spring, we do a miniature Hackathon event on site, designated for follow-up projects from the fall hackathon and a short break from the regularly scheduled programming of the work week. But a mini-hack wouldn’t do what we wanted, which was to bring back the level of fun and connection that people felt last fall. So we played with a new idea: for Hackathons, our employees pitch their solutions for improving our workflow or business and then recruit teams to help put those solutions into action. But what about the problems they couldn’t figure out a solution for alone?
Instead of an event for pitching solutions, we created one for Infotechers to pitch their problems. (Work related, that is, we weren’t offering to fix plumbing or internet connectivity.) We called it the Innovation Slam, like a poetry slam, but with rapid fire problem presentation instead of sick rhymes. We hosted it on Zoom, but designed the event so it could be done with a hybrid setup for the future or with smaller teams instead of company-wide.
And so, on a Friday afternoon, we scheduled a block of time for Infotechers to break away from routine tasks and brainstorm together. We spent an hour discussing design thinking methods and practicing them before moving on to The Slam. People were told they had 30 seconds to describe their problem and persuade people to join their breakout room to collaborate on solutions together.
For a minute, the Zoom was dead silent.
But it only takes one person to step up and go first, and soon we had hands raised from veteran and brand new Infotechers alike, presenting their problems to the 150 other people on the call.
We heard problems like:
How might we automate some aspect of our customers' jobs and make their lives easier?
How might we recognize customer-facing folks when their idea resulted in a new feature, enhancement or brand new tool?
How might we reduce meetings across the company or introduce No Meeting Fridays?
How might we expand accessibility for our products to a wider range of people, including those with disabilities or across languages?
Some were broad, some more niche. The solutions the groups came up with will get more than 15 minutes of fame, as some of them move into the next stages of being built out and applied. Yet, the goal wasn’t to come up with a perfect solution to every problem, the goal was to get everyone thinking outside the box, working together on something new.
There’s a quote by Grace Hopper that says, “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” That applies to technological innovation and business innovation, and in this case it applied to innovating the ways we connect with each other.
Remember the two problems we began with: how might we counter burnout and fatigue, and how might we find new ways to engage our employees as we look at hybrid future state of work? In a strange twist of irony, we found a possible solution to our problems by asking for more.
The creativity and connection that came from the design thinking process of collaboration was the break we needed, and if we’d done a mini-hackathon like usual it likely wouldn’t have had the same effect. If there’s anything that we have learned over the last year, it’s that everything can be improved in some way, even our approach to innovation itself.