Changing working practices need not be a bar to innovation says Chris Wright on behalf of Program Framework.

The Olympics are now less than 90 days away. As London prepares to face the onslaught of visitors, athletes and dignitaries, the official organising committee is hard at work to ensure all aspects of London life rise to the challenge. A significant part of its job is to make sure London business can effectively operate during the months of July and August.

As a result, much effort has been spent encouraging businesses to think creatively about the working practices of their staff during the Olympic period. The transport network is set to face some stern tests and encouraging people to avoid it where possible has been the committee’s message for some time now.

Companies may allow staff to work from home where possible, to relocate to other working locations, or to alter their working hours to avoid peak times. The official advice regarding work practices follows a clear trend seen in recent years. ACAS, the employment relations and arbitration service, authored a report that found working patterns were now changing faster than ever across a wide range of businesses.

Even the law has started to legislate in favour of these moves. In April 2003 the Employment Act introduced various rights for parents allowing them to apply for flexible working arrangements. It also places a duty on employers to give serious consideration to similar requests from all employees.

In this climate of change many businesses are wondering how they maintain good communication and interaction between employees. It can no longer be assumed that a project team will be sitting in the same office, or the same country. Staff needing to collaborate with each other might not even be working the same office hours.

Organisations rely on this type of basic staff interaction to innovate, to generate new products and services and to generally drive the business forward. But changing working practices need not be a bar to innovation, indeed handled in the right way they can actually help to encourage it.

Supporting technology trends

For a long time now companies have used technology to help staff work more effectively together. Intranets, email, mobile phones - all have a played a part in fostering good working relations and in turn innovation.

But technology needs to adapt and, as we have seen, the requirements of the modern employee are very different to those of even two years ago. So how do geographically dispersed staff communicate? How does a project team working irregular hours from home co-author an important report?

Mobile working

Mobile is an area that has an extremely important role to play in supporting modern employees and helping to fostering innovation. Smartphones and tablets are now commonplace and users are entirely comfortable with using them to access, digest, and distribute ideas and content.

The traditional intranet, so long the mainstay of employee communication, and accessed only from the office desktop machine, is no longer relevant in this context. Homeworkers, hot-deskers and staff on the move all want and need to be able to access their company intranet on one of these mobile devices.

Microsoft SharePoint is one intranet platform that has started to address these mobile challenges. With little or no custom work a SharePoint intranet can be accessed by users on mobile devices quickly and easily. Dedicated mobile pages work well on the smaller form factor, allowing users to interact and access content.

Complementing this out of the box experience with some bespoke work allows the user experience to be tailored to specific mobile device e.g. an iPhone gets one version whilst a Blackberry gets another.

The vibrant SharePoint community has taken mobile access even further by developing a number of smartphone and tablet apps that give users an even richer experience. Colligo Networks is one such member of this community.

They have a number of products but most interesting is the recently released Colligo Briefcase. This is an iPad application that allows users to securely sync and view SharePoint documents and lists on their mobile devices. With tools like this users can make the traditional intranet work with them, no matter their physical location or times of access.

The role of social networking in innovation

The second technology that can support innovation amongst employees in a changing workplace is social networking. The rise of social networking is well documented, with sites like Facebook. LinkedIn, and Twitter achieving huge numbers of users in a relatively short space of time.

Users in the social space have already replaced much of their email with tweets and Facebook messages. Such is the dominance of messaging on Facebook that they no longer even send users an email to alert them to a message on the site. Many Facebook users consider their Facebook inbox their default inbox.

Businesses can learn from these social trends, and encourage users to move away from Outlook and the closed shop of email. Instant messaging products like Microsoft Lync can help connect staff in real time. The Twitter clone Yammer offers multiple users the ability to collaborate. Again, SharePoint offers much, with features like team sites able to replace round robin emails.

Fostering innovation

Clearly technology has a huge role to play in fostering innovation. Whilst we have highlighted mobile and social as key drivers, a blend of technologies can help the modern employee drive their businesses forward.

Facebook’s recent purchase of Instagram (the SmartPhone photo sharing app) shows that social and mobile are now firmly intertwined. Other trends like business intelligence and crowdsourcing will also surely have a role to play. Different businesses will find different solutions to enabling innovation:

For a lot of companies innovation starts with communication. It starts with a new idea amongst employees over lunch, a conversation over the coffee machine, or brainwave during a workshop. Keeping the communication flowing effectively in modern organisations gets more and more difficult as employees change the way they work.

Technology has a huge role to play. No single product or trend can solve everybody's problems. Different approaches will work for different people and it is important to embrace the challenges and new technologies to help generate the ideas of tomorrow.