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February 01, 2024

Remote work hinders innovation? Not so fast…

A much-discussed study loses much of its impact when the timeline of its findings is examined.

In the news

“Remote collaborators don't generate as many breakthrough scientific ideas”—this was a typical headline in response to a recent study from the universities of Oxford and Pittsburgh. You could sense back-to-the-office advocates rubbing their hands with glee at the new rationale for ordering the troops back to HQ.

But the devil is in the details, and sometimes the details are all about the timeline. The study, published in Nature, examined collaboration efforts from 1960 to 2020. Impressively thorough, it analyzed more than 20 million research papers and 4 million patents.

During the 60 years studied, the average distance between team members working on papers rose from 100 kilometers to nearly 1,000. And “extremely long-distance collaborations” (those exceeding distances of 2,500 kilometers) rose from 2% of all collaborations to 15%.

“Researchers in these remote teams relative to their onsite counterparts were consistently less likely to make breakthrough discoveries,” this article notes. They were also less likely to engage in conceptual tasks like conceiving research or writing papers.

But remember that devil-in-the-timeline detail. As this additional study points out, something interesting happened in the 2010s: “The negative impact [associated with remote teams] tapers off and even becomes positive,” the study says. While the emergence of crucial enabling technologies for remote collaboration received scant attention in early reports, it shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Cognizant take

The 2010s, of course, are when digital collaboration tools and broadband internet access started to become widespread. Moreover, “the real plot twist emerges after 2015,” says this column. “Distributed teams are no longer just catching up; they are paving new paths in innovation, rewriting the rules of collaborative creativity.”

Certainly, some types of interaction and collaboration thrive on physical proximity, such as the three-minute “drive-by” meetings in which one co-worker leans on another’s cubicle wall—and they accomplish as much as they would in a 30-minute video call.

But there’s much to be said for remote collaboration, too. For starters, the technologies that enable it (broadband, enterprise-grade software and more) are growing faster and better—and are as familiar as the telephone to younger workers. Moreover, with diversity a high priority for virtually all businesses, attracting top talent wherever they may live—and allowing them to continue to live there—would seem to be a feature, not a bug.

Given that the innovation gap between centralized and remote teams has closed and even reversed since the 2010s, the preferred course is probably to track relative productivity while continuing to use the best remote collaboration tools possible. It beats trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

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