Is Remote Work Less Innovative?
Updated: May 18, 2022
Indeed, it quotes a researcher who said they’d “heard from managers and executives that innovation was one of the biggest challenges with video interaction.”
Undoubtedly this article and the research it was based on will add to the pile of arguments some managers are using to force a return to the workplace. Unfortunately, it’s based on a flawed assumption and didn’t lead to material differences in creativity. It is therefore meaningless in the remote vs. face-to-face debate.
First, let’s look at the study.
What the Study Found
The study Virtual Communication Curbs Creative Idea Generation is specifically about using a tool like Zoom when it comes to creativity. However, the broader context is the “[normalization] of working from home on a large scale” and how this "shift away from in-person interaction affects innovation, which relies on collaborative idea generation as the foundation of commercial and scientific progress" (emphasis mine).
So the background here is remote work. And the potential fear-mongering is that remote working environments won’t be as “innovative” as in-person environments, which might lead to a lack of competitiveness.
The study used a common creativity exercise - find unique uses for a frisbee - and did the exercise in person with a partner and remotely using Zoom.
They found that partners working in the same room produced more creative ideas than partners working remotely. They also speculated as to why, which we’ll get into.
“Back to the office!”
So that’s, that, right? Proof that remote work will kill our creativity, and this creativity is crucial to our vital fluids I mean innovative competitive advantage.
Well, obviously, not so fast.
The actual methods used asked people to brainstorm for five minutes. After five minutes, the remote groups produced 6.7 creative ideas, while the in-person groups produced 7.9 creative ideas.
To put that in perspective - we’re talking about 1.34 creative ideas per minute vs. 1.58 creative ideas per minute. A mere 20% difference.
It’d be inaccurate to extrapolate this to say that face-to-face work is 20% more innovative as we’re only looking at brainstorming here - explicit get-togethers to think of ideas. So basically, in-person brainstorming sessions may generate more ideas per minute.
How many of these sessions do you have? Probably not many. Let’s say you’re a super innovative place that heavily uses brainstorming and has at least one one-hour session a week. Should you make everyone come back to the office, or just let that meeting take 20% longer?
I’m sure people won’t mind since they can just use the time they’d spend commuting for it.
This Isn’t Material
A 20% increase in productivity of a particular method (one that doesn’t exactly dominate very many workplaces) isn’t a stellar win. To use the technique, people have to commute. These commutes averaged 27.6 minutes one way a day.
How much brainstorming would you have to do to make this a win for everyone? They will be on the road for 55 minutes and 12 seconds for this brainstorming session. You’d have to spend 5 hours and 8 minutes brainstorming for this benefit to make a difference. That’s assuming people’s brainstorming abilities don’t diminish over time, which is most likely false.
Want to use this as an excuse to bring people into the office every day? That means you’d have to spend 5 hours and 8 minutes every day brainstorming for this to be an effect worth chasing.
But That’s Not All
According to the same study cited, there’s some preliminary evidence that video conferencing may be slightly more effective at choosing the most creative idea. This makes the whole calculus above even worse, as the remote brainstorming group will be able to make back some of their time choosing the best idea.
However, the biggest takeaway from this study would be in the follow-up the researchers did on “eye-gaze.” Basically, they posited that most of the problem of remote brainstorming comes from people looking at their screens too much. In-person, brainstorming teams tended to look around the room, while remote teams tended to look at each other.
Why is this important?
If you’re worried about losing creativity remotely, just turn your cameras off. If there’s nothing on the screen to see, you won’t stare at the screen.
Fruit of a Poisonous Tree
What if, after all that, I were to tell you none of what they found even mattered because brainstorming isn’t how we come up with ideas in the first place?
The research cited by the video conferencing study had the conclusion that “teams increasingly dominate solo authors in the production of [patents].” Unfortunately, I can’t access the full article. But I find the jump from “teams file most patents” to “brainstorming exercises is how teams work” unsupported. Furthermore, it is a giant leap to conclude that video conferencing might threaten our very innovative prowess - nay, remote work itself may be the doom of our nation. I think these assumptions would be disputed by anyone who has, you know, worked in a team before.
Brainstorming can’t be what drives innovation. Why?
Because it’s a waste of time. After “six decades of independent scientific research, there is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently.”
Even worse, “a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance.”
Why, if we know they don’t work, do we still seem to pursue brainstorming exercises? The article speculates that the “increased specialization of labor” has distributed knowledge among employees.
If that’s especially important to you or your business, cross-functional teams are a far better way to tap into distributed knowledge. Of course, since these are hardly ever prioritized, most fail.
This should be somewhat annoying. Many folks have to deal with arguments like this: we need to head back into the workplace to collaborate. Yet when an actual collaborative technique is known (cross-functional teams), the same managers who insist we head in often sabotage cross-functional efforts.
Makes you wonder about the actual values driving this insistence around “getting back to the office.”
How to Actually Get Back to the Office
We’re 13% more productive working from home. Until office proponents figure out how to replicate that, it won’t make economic sense to go back to the office.
Worse, office proponents will need to make up that productivity and then some to cover the costs of offices themselves.
As our calculations above implied, 4/5ths of the productivity benefit seems to come from reducing transit times. It will be tough to argue that people need to show up at the office to be more productive when the showing up part makes the office unproductive.
Tom DeMarco argued in the classic Peopleware that the main path to a productive office is investment. More square feet per worker, more noise canceling, more equipment.
Ironically, office proponents seem to both over and under invest in the very offices they promote. They insist that people need to work in them to be productive but then tear down walls and give knowledge workers disruptive and distracting bullpens.
Open offices, heralded as the way creative workers will be most productive, have largely backfired and hurt creativity and innovation. It’s no surprise: these plans largely flew in the face of what we actually know about productivity. The claims to innovation were largely hand-wavy marketing to cover the actual argument of cost savings. (You know what would save even more costs? Not having offices.)
Yet these are the same offices some argue we should go back to.
If you want people to come back in, make the office a place that attracts people. That isn’t just an excellent coffee machine and pinball machine (the latter can actually backfire). Give people privacy, give them deskspace, and give them quiet. In many cases, that’s what they have at home (though not everyone does).
For remote work proponents:
Keep an eye on Zoom fatigue. There are times to use cameras and times to not. There are times to use video and times to use text.
Lean into remote. Educate your staff on how to make a quiet and productive workspace in their home; or fund shared workspace efforts.
For on-site work proponents:
Install actual offices with doors
Build locations closer to where your employees live to minimize transit times
And since that will probably seem “too expensive,” you might want to just switch sides and become a remote work proponent.
Ultimately, this is a question of fairness. Employees are footing the bill either way. With remote work, they have to build offices in their houses. They have to pay for gas with on-site; they usually foot the bill on transit time.
Employees have loudly spoken, and most prefer remote work. The arguments that on-site is more productive or innovative largely miss the issue. Employers need to figure out how to share the perceived productivity benefits with employees and make offices an exciting place to work.
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