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Remote work used to hinder innovation — until suddenly it didn’t

Remote work used to hinder innovation — until suddenly it didn’t
Remote work used to hinder innovation — until suddenly it didn’t

Both recent newspaper headlines and federal government policy documents have declared the rationale behind mandates to return government workers to the office. Remote work, the claim goes, is harmful to innovation and creativity.

This claim seemed to garner substantial support from a recently published study in Nature. The study supposedly “conclusively proves” remote work harms innovation and creativity. The narrative that traditional, in-person work environments are the sole breeding grounds for innovation and collaborative breakthroughs has thus dominated the discourse.

Yet this narrative is not only outdated but fundamentally flawed in the context of our modern, technology-driven world.

The Nature study is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Spearheaded by a team of researchers from Oxford and the University of Pittsburgh, this comprehensive analysis delved into a staggering expanse of data — over 20 million scientific studies and 4 million patent applications. Spanning an impressive half-century timeframe, this study serves as a time capsule, providing insights into collaborative trends and breakthroughs over the decades.

At its core, this study appears to reinforce a long-held belief: that physical proximity is integral to innovation. It suggested a direct correlation between teams working in close quarters and their ability to produce pioneering work. The data painted a vivid picture: teams that shared physical workspaces were more likely to churn out groundbreaking patents and scientific discoveries. This finding was a substantial nod to traditional work environments, seemingly validating the argument that in-person collaboration is superior to working remotely.

However, as we venture further into the timeline, the narrative undergoes a dramatic transformation, particularly after 2010. This era marks the dawn of a technological renaissance, a period that saw significant advancements and innovations that have reshaped how we perceive and engage in remote work.

The shift in the landscape was illuminated by a critical follow-up study conducted by Oxford’s Carl Frey, one of the original authors of the Nature paper, and Giorgio President. Their research unveiled a striking contrast between the nature of remote collaboration before and after the landmark year of 2010. What they found was nothing short of revolutionary.

This period witnessed the birth and rapid adoption of technologies tailor-made for remote collaboration. Tools like Microsoft Teams, Trello, Zoom, Google Drive, and Slack were not just digital platforms; they became the lifelines connecting remote teams across the globe. Their widespread use democratized remote work, breaking down the barriers once posed by physical distance.

Analyzing trends from the 1980s to the present, the data reveals a fascinating narrative: the once-wide chasm between the innovative outputs of in-person and remote teams has steadily narrowed. The 1980s marked the debut of the first scientific remote collaboration platform. Back then, the data hinted at a somewhat bleak picture for distributed teams — they faced a 5 percent innovation deficit compared to their in-person counterparts.

By the turn of the century, the landscape had already begun to shift. Between 2000 and 2010, this innovation gap started to shrink dramatically, dwindling down to a mere 1 percent. It’s a sign of changing times, indicating that the barriers once posed by physical distance are gradually losing their grip.

But the real plot twist emerges after 2015, when the narrative flips completely. The once-negative coefficient, a marker of the remote work disadvantage, not only zeroes out but actually takes a surprising leap into positive territory. Distributed teams are no longer just catching up; they are paving new paths in innovation, rewriting the rules of collaborative creativity.

The role of infrastructure in this sweeping change cannot be understated. The quality of broadband infrastructure, often an overlooked factor, has proven pivotal in this equation. The studies underscore the crucial role played by robust internet connectivity in enabling and enhancing remote collaboration. Specifically, teams whose members had better broadband connectivity experienced improved outcomes in innovation. That evidence further supports the idea that refinements in remote work tech tools, which are enabled by fast broadband, offer the key for improved innovation.

Another change has been the recent development of better techniques for innovation in remote and hybrid settings. For example, virtual asynchronous brainstorming involves using digital tools such as Microsoft Forms for idea submission, accommodating different schedules and thinking styles. A facilitator organizes the ideas, groups similar ones, and removes duplicates. The team can then anonymously evaluate and provide feedback, leading to a final discussion phase. This has proven both inclusive and adaptable, allowing innovative contributions at each person’s own pace.

The implications of these findings are profound for government agencies. The traditional belief that innovation is geographically bound to office spaces is being challenged by empirical evidence. Remote work, when supported by the right technology and infrastructure, is not just a viable alternative to in-person collaboration, but a superior one.

Gleb Tsipursky serves as the CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the author of Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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