A very interesting study in Nature this week on “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation.” And while I don’t think the results will surprise many, I do think we are not close to settling the question. This is a fairly good-sized study, with a good methodology, but I think more research is needed in the area. I’m thinking we will see a few more studies around the topic.
The results suggest that there is a unique cognitive advantage to in-person collaboration, but the authors do acknowledge there are a whole lot of other factors in play.
This is the big question for many. How do we get the benefits of in-person while maintaining the flexibility and benefits folks are used to. I think, for those work environments where virtual work is possible, the answer is going to be to structure times to maximize the tangible benefits of office-based work, including:
- “Serendipitous collaboration,” a term coined by Dana Sitar in Inc. to describe informal interactions that result in innovative ideas, problem-solving, and new approaches. For me this includes plopping in a coworker’s office for a quick problem-solving session (maybe with a little healthy venting on the side). Speedy, efficient interactions that simply don’t happen in a remote environment — and that build a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
- More productive meetings. Even though we’re becoming more skillful at remote meetings, there are just certain meetings that benefit from in-person..
- Connection and loyalty are difficult to promote in employees working remotely. The sense of team is not the same when team members see each other online as opposed to seeing them and speaking with them multiple times a day.
- High-functioning teams have outstanding communication and shared experiences — both of which are difficult to manufacture long distance. Creating a relaxed, and informal environment, diffusing tension, and engaging in an extensive discussion where every team member is heard are all much easier to do in person than virtually.
Businesses operate thanks to human ideas and energy. People are the power behind every business; successful businesses find that fulfilled, happy employees drive fresh ideas, work harder to accomplish goals, and remain loyal to their employers.
The human element (and the need for and value of human connection) can’t be overstated as an ingredient for success and growth. I think we’re entering a new phase, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. What I hope is that bad decisions won’t become enshrined because of cost-cutting or just organization laziness. That approach already gave us horrible open offices.