Everyone knows that being in the same room is better for creativity than working apart, and that’s why people are heading into the office at least part-time. We know that, right? Not so fast.
As we shift more to hybrid and other brand-new ways of organizing our work, there is a huge concern about how it will influence innovation, creativity and problem-solving. Some people say that working remotely can actually enhance “out of the box” thinking and diversity of thought, while others say it limits brainstorming and leads to better new ideas. This group is pointing to a new study published on Nature.com as proof.
What did we learn from the study?
In a nutshell, the part of the study that gets quoted most often is that hundreds of kids were paired off. Some worked in person together, the rest worked via WebEx. What they were working on was finding creative uses for a Frisbee. At the end of the day, the people who shared space came up with 1.5 better ideas on average than the kids working separately.
The press (and those pressing for Return to Office as quickly and fully as possible) pointed to the results and shouted “In-Person Work Spurs More Innovation and Creativity!” at the top of their lungs.
As usual when the mainstream press cites a study, it draws broad conclusions that need to be examined. Basically, there were a number of factors that should give us pause before deciding how your teams need to work together:
- The people in the original study were high school students with no financial or other responsibilities to the stakeholders. I’m guessing they also didn’t have the same level of interest or feelings of responsibility as someone getting paid to do a task.
- The object in question was a Frisbee and the ideas were encouraged to be fantastical and as creative as possible. It is reasonable to assume that real-world problems with real-world application or outcomes may generate different responses.
- There were only two people involved in the pairs, and they had no history or relationship with each other. Interestingly, history and personal relationships can positively or negatively affect the results of creativity and brainstorming. We know this any time we want to make a suggestion but don’t want to tick off Dave, because you know how he is…
- Two things the study pointed out were intriguing. First, that the people in the room looked at each other but also around the room more often while thinking. Second, they touched the object (the Frisbee) more often and were more tactile than the kids on WebEx. The indications are that the physical environment (wherever it is) plays an important role.
We still have much to learn about innovation
This is not to negate the findings of the study which were actually quite interesting. Our purpose here is to point out there are a number of factors involved in how teams solve problems and work together. Some are enhanced by physical proximity, others are unaffected or work better when people aren’t too close to each other.
For every boss dictating that teams come together two days a week to enhance creativity, there’s someone like the writer and producer Kristen Beyer, who writes for Star Trek: Picard and other projects. She extols the virtues of a virtual “writer’s room,” where allowing people to live where they want and not have to gather every day in a cramped room in a Hollywood studio actually makes for more creativity and originality of thought. She swears this leads to a more diverse viewpoint and less group-think.
As leaders, we need to think carefully about what kinds of outcomes you want before deciding on how you team needs to be located and structured.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.
The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can pre-order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.