Impact of Virtual Communication on Creativity

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.

Serendipitous Collaboration

As we discuss the future of work, of how we do in-person, remote and hybrid it is critical to think about how modern knowledge work is highly networked and collaborative and benefits from social serendipity through social networks and access to people with complementary expertise. Value is often created in an ecosystemic way and through social networks, and as we determine new ways of working it is important to consider how we will allow social serendipity while at the same time creating flexibility.

Frequent, informal, spontaneous interactions in collocated work environments enable cohesive relationships and increases social awareness. There are four major types of collaboration that stem from social serendipity:

Intellectual generositySharing ideas freely with others for the advancement of the organizationFree exchange of ideas
MentorshipWorking with less experienced colleagues to encourage and support developmentGiving feedback
CommunicationDisseminating knowledge and visionPresenting results
PerformativityWorking with others to solve problems and improve performanceProblem-solving teams

As we evaluate our organizations, build and sustain teams, we should be looking for ways to enhance the ability to have social serendipity, enshrining this as part of our team norms.

Changes stems from learning from mistakes

As we build quality culture we need to question our basic assumptions and build new principles of every day interactions. At the heart of this sits a culture where change is viewed as a good thing.

Willingness to change

To what extent are employees willing to continuously review and adapt their own behavior in response to a changing environment? The ideal scenario is for the entire workforce to be willing to change. This willingness to change should not be confined to situations where changes are already being implemented. It means that people should look at environment with open eyes, recognize when there is an opportunity or a need for change and initiate the relevant actions themselves. Willingness to change should be the first principle of culture and is a key enabler of the popular concept often called agility.

Learning Culture

To what extent do employees think that their actions should be guided by data- and fact-based knowledge? The term “knowledge” encompasses any knowledge acquired through targeted observation, by chance, through data-based analysis or from practical experience.

Willingness to make mistakes

Learning cultures attach great importance to mistakes. These organizations have understood that learning and change processes can only be triggered by mistakes. Mistakes provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the company’s processes and uncover previously unknown cause-and-effect relationships.

The way an organization deals with mistakes is therefore a key aspect of its culture. Two fundamentally different approaches to mistakes exist.

  • A negative attitude towards mistakes is reflected in a strategy based on the systematic avoidance of errors, strict penalties for making mistakes and the correction of errors as rapidly and unobtrusively as possible. Employees of companies where this culture prevails are not usually willing to disclose mistakes. This attitude inhibits their willingness to change.
  • On the other hand, a culture that recognizes the value of mistakes is characterized by open discussion of mistakes when they occur, systematic error documentation and a determination to find both the causes of the mistakes and their solutions. When investigating mistakes, it is critical to focus on understanding the causes rather than on finding out who is to blame.

Openness to Innovation

Openness to innovation and new ways of doing things is an important capability that is required in order to initiate change and adopt the right measures, even if they may sometimes be rather unconventional.

Social Collaboration

An environment characterized by trust and social relationships provides the basis for open, uninhibited knowledge sharing between employees. Social collaboration, helps to accelerate knowledge sharing within the organization. Good strong social networks build resilience and enable the ability to change.

Open Communication

In order for companies to respond rapidly and to be able to effectively change, employees need to have access to the necessary explicit and implicit knowledge. While explicit knowledge can be provided through the appropriate communication technology, the sharing of implicit knowledge calls for direct communication between the people who possess the knowledge and the people seeking it.

An effective organization needs to abandon the “us and them” mentality. Employees have acquired the capability of open communication if, having taken on board the fact that openly sharing knowledge and working together to achieve a vision increases the total sum of knowledge, they then also act
accordingly. Once the organization’s entire workforce is willing to share knowledge with everyone, it becomes possible to significantly accelerate learning processes within the company.

What Does This Look Like?

Social collaboration exists between employees and with customers and partners. Confidence in systems and processes results in high process stability. People are willing to document their acquired knowledge and share it with others. The democratic leadership style values people for the contribution they make and there is a culture of open communication. The workforce is both receptive and willing to change. They learn systematically from the captured data, are open to innovative approaches and participate in shaping change processes. Employees are also conscious of the need to continuously develop their skills and competencies. While mistakes are still made, people recognize that they are valuable because they have the potential to trigger improvements.

Where we need to be