Increase Productivity or a Boost in Innovation – Which Would You Choose?

By David Hassell

Trends today point to a future of work culture where remote teams are the norm. When geography stops mattering, you can source the best team members from anywhere in the world. And if the creme de la creme is working solo, chances are they’re empowered to focus exclusively on the work at hand and get things done.

But here’s the thing. While we’re most productive when we’re alone, we’re most innovative in groups.

At first glance, it seems like we can’t achieve both. Should we focus on increasing productivity or boosting innovation? Or is it possible to have the best of both worlds?

By understanding the dynamics of each realm we can begin to carve out the best of both in our professional lives.

Productivity Is a Loneliness Game

Office environments are jam-packed with distractions. Between ping-pong tables, noisy team member phone calls, and synchronized brain breaks, it’s tough to get things done at work. As Virgin CEO Richard Branson says, we’re living in “an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.”

Meetings and ideation are important, but here’s the problem. Brainstorming and planning sessions take time away from execution, AKA getting things done. In a recent survey, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of respondents say they spend more time in meetings talking about work than actually doing it. That’s pretty frustrating. In order to walk the talk, you need to guarantee plenty of healthy time alone.

Working Together Drives Innovation

Exclusive isolation, however, can kill your business. Just think about it. When has your team come up with their best ideas?

At the round table. In meetings. When they’re together and feeding off one another’s energy and mutual participation.

That’s the rationale behind Marissa Mayer’s controversial work from home ban. Even though people are more productive when they’re alone, they’re more innovative when they’re together.

“Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together,” she explained in a quote.

And it’s not that ground-breaking innovation is happening during scheduled meetings. It’s happening during the ‘brain breaks’ that we criticized in the previous section of this post – you know, the ones that are stopping team members from being fully efficient.

The beauty of working together is that there is always an opportunity for unplanned meetings to happen naturally. New ideas come from inspiration, not structure. When you’re all working alone, you minimize the likelihood for that inspiration to occur.

One of our best ideas for the soon-to-be-released 2.0 version of 15Five came during an all-day strategy retreat. However, it didn’t happen according to our carefully planned out schedule. It happened during lunch when we sat down together, “broke bread”, and threw ideas on the table free of any agendas.

Build a Culture of Innovation While Working Alone

Back to having cake and eating it too. Can we stay productive, maintain efficiency and enable the creative, spontaneous outpouring of brilliant ideas? Absolutely. Like your company’s culture, mission, vision,and hiring practices, it just takes a lot of strategic planning.

Take us for instance. Some of our team is located near our headquarters and others are spread across the map. In addition to our full-time staff, we work with consultants who are based all over the world.

We can work from anywhere and often do.

We hold regular in person meetups and, whenever we’re away from one another, we’re connected with chat programs like Hipchat. I’ve always found that Hipchat is a great way to stay connected without filling up everyone’s inbox. Whenever I have a quick matter or an urgent one – I shoot them a message.

Face time is also important, even if you are working remotely. If your company is geo-diverse, video conferencing programs like Google Hangouts and Skype can facilitate face time. You can also encourage team members to work in co-working spaces with other companies.

Raise Productivity Levels While Working Together

On the flip side, your company can make an equal effort to boost productivity when you’re together. Your company can create a virtual wall or collaboration table, especially if you’re working together in an open space. This type of structure will help team members effectively balance their shared vs. alone time.

Your company can also designate regular work from home days. Scripted, a marketplace for copywriting, encourages team members to work from home every Friday. Your company can also try designating blocks of time that are ‘meeting free’ to help ensure that the momentum of productivity stays strong.

Cater to Individual Personalities

To maintain balance, harness the natural strengths of your team members. Some team members will be natural extraverted collaborators, while others will be introverts who generally prefer working alone.

Creating a culture of respect for all personality types in your workplace will go a long way towards harnessing the unique powers of both introverts and extroverts.

It’s okay if some team members have more meetings or alone-time than others. Remember that you’re evaluating your company on the aggregate. Some people will be stronger innovation drivers, and others will be stronger productivity drivers. Recognize strengths and encourage preferred modes of working to get the most out of everyone –not to mention keeping your team a lot happier and professionally healthy.

And don’t feel like you need an open-plan office design just because every other company seems to be doing it. Encourage collaboration via e-mail, instant messaging, phone, and online chat tools. If you are in an open environment, make sure that there are plenty of spaces with closed doors so that team members can have space to concentrate when they need it most.

Conversely if email threads seem to be getting out of hand and valuable ideas are falling through the cracks, reign it in and take it offline. Create a running list of ideas that will best be follow-up in a group discussion around a table and bundle those topics for an appropriate (and scheduled) time.

It all goes back to the company culture that you’re building. Implement a solution that caters to your team’s strengths, but pay extra close attention to the gaps that illuminate your weaknesses too. You can have the best of both worlds. Be productive and innovative. It just takes balance. And if you’re stuck, ask your team to design the solution. Let them test and finalize what works best.



Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.


  • All indicators are this is the way the workplace of the very near future will be. A generational shift will help that, but it’ll require more mindset shift to create environments where people can thrive in the “new world”. Navigating that will be fun and challenging, but the ones who embrace it will emerge far ahead. The advice here is great!

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