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Working And Innovating Virtually With No Corporate Address? Been There, Done That

Think about this: for decades now, some of the most innovative and game-changing organizations on the planet have operated completely remotely and virtually from day one, releasing product after product, without even paying their participants. We’re talking about open source software communities, which have delivered some of the world’s most powerful and important software, from Linux to PostgreSQL to Apache Hadoop and Apache Spark. They operate openly and fairly for all members, where every voice gets heard, with “managers” only there to offer guidance, resolve disputes, and coordinate product releases.

These open source software communities “have revolutionized software and the world working from anywhere,” says Andres Angelani, CEO of Cognizant Softvision. Yet, at the same time, “traditional analog enterprises struggle to innovate, even if everyone is located in the same place.”

With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis — in which every company was forced to join the greatest shift to work-from-home ever — the question becomes: how can enterprises that struggled to innovate while everyone was in the same place innovate while everyone is remote? The success of the open source world offers some clues: keep employees or participants engaged with a strong sense of community and teamwork.

Angelina, who addressed innovation patterns in his book released last fall, Transforming While Performing: How to Create a Culture of Innovation with Partners, recently took up this question in a post-Covid update. Everyone moved to a distributed workforce model and were forced to ask themselves how they can maintain momentum and ensure a continuous product or delivery, and ensure that teams continue to work together, despite not being in the same location or face to face.

Angelani’s company has supported at least part of its workforce remotely over the years, and extended the lessons learned to its entire workforce in recent months.

Going entirely remote is not without its issues, he cautions. For example, with remote teams, “decision making may be slower. In an office environment, it’s easy to walk over, talk to a colleague, pick up on body language and share personal stories that embody a typical office culture.” In addition, “not every home environment is created equal. Some colleagues have young families with small kids, in small apartments. Privacy can be a luxury.”

Angelani says he has been organizing his employees into teams of “virtual pods,” or tightly knot teams, which have been proving their meddle during the Covid-19 crisis. “Designed as cross-functional, agile teams, ‘pods’ are responsible for end-to-end solutions,” Angelani explains. Their cohesion as a team is built upon a strong sense of community, which represents “the cultural connective tissue that engages members, and focuses on their personal growth, and keeps them thriving and highly productive.” This sense of community extends outward to clients as well, “encompassing flexible software along with frequent smaller group video chats.”

The key is building and maintaining friendly and empathetic relationships across the board. “We often have key pod members open up a video conference instance and keep it running all day during critical sprints” Angelani says. “We treat each-other’s virtual environment like open-door offices. Need to talk? Pop on in.”

Gratification also plays an important role as well. The virtual pod teams even participate in what is called “Game of Pods,” in which team members are “battling obstacles and new challenges,” seeking to become “superheroes” in their worlds, he relates. Such approaches offer “the opportunity to continuously engage your workforce by applying game mechanics into a corporate setting, making work more fun, merit more visible and individual career progress more equitable and transparent.”

And that’s where innovation comes from, regardless of location. The open source communities harnessed this energy a long time ago, and it’s time for mainstream organizations to follow suit. Why can’t we all operate like open source communities?

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