Portfolio Exchange 2020: Innovation in a remote world

Communication and creativity are key to innovation. But how do we transition this into the new normal to foster innovation?

The extraordinary shift to remote working has brought about productivity gains for some. Unfortunately, innovation isn’t always keeping up. A recent Microsoft survey reported that firm bosses are less upbeat about their companies’ innovative flair: just 40% feel their firms are highly innovative nowadays, down from 56% in 2019. Could remote working, which many are hailing for its benefits, be to blame?

“Overall I’ve been surprised at how we have been able to cope with the practical aspect of the changes, and very quickly,” says Didier Bench, Chair at travel technology company Atcore and omni-channel commerce platform Flooid. “But we started to face some miscommunication and misunderstanding issues, so we’ve defined and created new processes internally and externally to ensure it’s all clear.”

Indeed a focus on efficient meetings and communications has come to the fore. “This has been a great opportunity to refresh on what it takes to make great meetings. Sending the agenda in advance and deciding who is really necessary to attend are obvious things we take for granted, but it’s important to remind people,” says Ian Brown, CEO at cloud hosting provider UKFast.


Spontaneity - creativity

This lack of spontaneous interaction may be stymieing creativity.

“Product development has changed, and the creative space has been the biggest challenge,” admits Sucheet Amin, CEO of Lavatech, a client communication channel for the legal profession. Before Covid, product development all started in Lavatech’s office, which was a truly collaborative and creative environment where people could scribe their thoughts on any wall they were near owing to a specialist paint Sucheet had specially used for the purpose. 

This cultivated ideas and led to “nuggets of gold”, according to Sucheet.  They’d be preserved on the wall and could grow – but it was lost with lockdown.

“Our approach has had to change wholesale because of restrictions.” The firm now uses the Miro and Slack platforms to try and recreate that capturing of spontaneity. “We can see people write, it’s neater, and it’s infinite, unlike our office walls. We also put ideas out on Slack, and it’s ‘best idea wins’ rather than who puts it forward. It’s very effective” But it’s not perfect: “We’ve lost the physical energy of being together near that wall.”

This more structured approach to brainstorming has replaced what was traditionally based on instinct and serendipity, for many firms. This, Sucheet says, has led to a smaller number of ideas, but which tend to be of better quality.

Focus on innovation

Innovation should result in something which can be of use to (and thus purchased by) clients. “Our clients need our product, it’s not discretionary spend, and we are lucky in that sense. To keep the team focused we ensure everyone has an aligned vision, take on the Nike mindset of ‘just do it’ and set goals. People have clear objectives and work towards key results,” says Ian.

Precisely what these goals should be needs to be determined, and getting client input can be a very helpful way of doing that. Lavatech has launched focus groups to do this, which consist of a tech group and a marketing group and tend to meet monthly. “The agenda is driven by our customers, and it gives us their insights by observing dialogue on the platform we created,” says Sucheet. It’s a win-win: the clients benefit from a safe space for them to collaborate and share ideas, and Lavatech benefits from being a fly on the wall and identifying product opportunities.

Investing despite adversity: THE launches new products

Not everyone is slowed down by Covid. Times Higher Education has expanded its customer base through product development.

At Times Higher Education (THE), the engineering team has been remote since before the pandemic. “The remote team is very productive, and as an organisation we need to learn to work this way, it’s the new reality.” says Freddie Quek, CTO.  

He concedes there have been challenges to overcome: space for people who may not have a dedicated working area at home, brainstorming, and mental health. THE has addressed these through collaborative whiteboards such as Miro to assist with brainstorming and doing more social communication virtually.

While these day-to-day issues are being smoothed out, the strategic decisions are also tricky as leaders balance tension between cost savings and investment. THE , which was backed by Inflexion in February 2019, has continued to invest to grow the business. In April, a new data product was launched and in June the team received investment approval to build a new b2c platform (“THE Student”).

“This is significant, as it’s the first b2c product for us,” Freddie points out, explaining that around a third of visitors to THE’s b2b site were students, yet the company hadn’t previously catered for them. “It is a tremendous opportunity to not only invest in building new products but also building a new foundation for the future that can address speed, scope and scale” he says. 

Microsoft’s journey in remote engineering


Microsoft Product Marketing Manager Justin Davies shared his thoughts on product development with the Inflexion portfolio


“The way business has conducted has totally changed. We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.  This is true for us from a product perspective, and also true for our customers: usage of MS Teams has gone up 700% during the pandemic.


Even before Covid we were looking at ways of how remote initiatives could be rolled out to customers but when the pandemic hit, we had to adapt our plans. 150,000 people were onboarded to remote on 4 March. In that sense, Covid accelerated our already in-progress plans.


We learned we had gaps in our guidance, support and experience for this situation. Additionally, we didn’t have an adequate support structure at the corporate level. We needed to evaluate and adapt our processes.


Productivity as a distributed team


Whether our products are delivered online or on device, we effectively build in feedback loops to understand customer behaviour. This feedback is increasingly informing our short-term sprints to evolve products for our customers – effectively impacting our release velocity.


Developers can collaborate remotely through GitHub, which we rely on very heavily now. We also enable agile planning with Azure Boards – it allows users to plan, track and discuss work across teams.


Overall we have found productivity levels unchanged, despite our quick transition to remote. The range of working hours has expanded as developers began working different schedules to accommodate new working conditions. We are aware there is a real need for better understanding of individual situations and perspectives.”