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Innovation, Serendipity, and Work-From-Home: Is Together Always Better?

April 17, 2023 — COVID-19 sparked rapid adoption and advancement of remote technology to meet the challenges of the global pandemic. From contactless payment to video calls, telehealth, and home delivery services, many aspects of daily life evolved into new norms. In many cases, technology rapidly improved to meet the demands.

One of the most consequential changes was the need for most players in the research and innovation realm to work from home. While productivity remained strong, isolation has an undeniable cultural impact on the workplace itself. UIDP has long recognized the benefits of serendipity in the research engagement arena—the casual encounters and conversations that can lead to new ways to collaborate.

Today, as many companies call employees back to the office, there is considerable debate about the effects of remote work on creativity and collaboration. Is together always better when it comes to innovation?

Disconnected connections

Large technology companies have long argued that remote work stifles innovation because of lack of serendipity. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, told People early in 2021 that he couldn’t wait to return to the office. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” Cook said. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

A similar study from the same year looked at Microsoft employees who worked from home and found that remote work decreased the connection between workers. Collaboration time dropped by about 25% compared to the pre-pandemic level (see the full abstract and methodology here).

Last fall, MIT conducted a study on the email networks of MIT research staff, faculty, and postdoctoral researchers. With the shift to remote work, email communications between different teams dropped, leading to a decrease in “weak ties,” the connection between two people with no mutual contact in an email network. In an in-person environment where serendipity happens, weak ties can lead to the exchange of new ideas and foster innovation. Comparing the study data with new data after researchers, faculty, and staff returned to campus, a new model predicted a complete recovery of weak ties after all the parties return to campus.

Hope for remote innovation

Alternatively, some professors at Harvard think that remote work can help to incentivize innovation. In a Harvard Business Review article, Tsedal Neeley, Naylor Fitzhugh professor of business administration and senior associate dean for faculty development and research, wrote that hybrid work is about more than just a different location. It’s also about optimizing our most fundamental routines—leaving more time for innovation.

Another Harvard Business School professor, Karim Lakhani, points to open innovation as a benefit of hybrid or remote work. According to Lakhani, open innovation is the idea that solutions to problems within an organization may reside outside the organization itself. For example, remote or hybrid employees work away from the office, which may result in different perspectives and more unique ideas that may not have otherwise occurred to them had they been in an office environment.

Harvard isn’t the only institution with a hopeful outlook on innovation and remote work. In June 2022, McKinsey released an article positing that virtual work accelerates innovation. McKinsey noted that business applications, global intellectual property filings, and venture capital flows all boomed since the start of the pandemic. McKinsey also points to how remote work can be used by more specialized and diverse talent to produce better innovation results.

Professional Development

Remote work may be more challenging for new employees or those new to the workforce. Entry-level employees may lack experience in an in-person workplace and don’t have the benefit of the face-to-face training and culture immersion that comes with in-person work. Even for employees with experience, remote onboarding can pose a challenge if the new job is a departure from past positions. And remote or hybrid positions can be socially isolating for new hires, especially if they are entry-level and don’t have the real-world experience that fosters camaraderie with colleagues.

Why it matters

Despite the polar opposite conclusions about remote work and its impact on innovation, it’s clear that the pandemic changed the way we live and work. How that affects innovation depends on your perspective—and your team. Every team is different and has different needs. It’s up to each organization to find the right balance between the employees’ and the company’s needs.

We want to hear from you: how do you think remote work impacts innovation? How has your organization handled remote work? Let us know on our LinkedIn page.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.