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By: Meghan Walsh
Many of business’s great innovations have been the product of in-person collaborations. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkering together in a Silicon Valley garage. Or high-schoolers Bill Gates and Paul Allen starting a company that compiled traffic data. But in today’s hybrid-work era, in which Zoom so often replaces face-to-face, could any of this have been possible?
It’s a question on the minds of many leaders, who worry that creative collaborations of such kinds are less likely to occur when people clock in remotely. Sharing physical space—and the supposed synergy and spontaneity those conditions produce—is considered an essential part of the creative process. But as leaders play a game of trial and error with hybrid work, others are questioning whether intangible aspects of creativity can survive passage through an ethernet cable.
Jonathan Levav, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor who recently co-authored a study on this very question, says, “People often don’t have informed opinions about work from home; they have dogmatic beliefs.” In a laboratory study and field experiments spanning three continents, Levav and his colleague Melanie Brucks compared collaboration in person versus over video: How many ideas were produced in each medium? How diverse were those ideas? They found that teleconferencing doesn’t just stymie the generating of new ideas—it also limits their scope. Levav and Brucks could even quantify the effects: in-person teams produce about 15 percent more ideas.
Some might think colleagues working virtually don’t connect to the same extent, emotionally or intellectually. In reality, when people brainstorm while focusing their field of vision on a narrow screen on a narrow box, their thinking narrows as well. But when members of a team are sitting in a room together, their gaze wanders around the space—which prompts the brain to wander as well. “It’s about not feeling restricted and limited in how you can think and behave,” Brucks says.
Fran Helms, a senior client partner and coleader of the media and entertainment sector at Korn Ferry, agrees about some of these limitations. But in a paper interviewing creatives at several top firms, she also identified an additional consideration: remote work, by removing geographical limitations, has opened the idea pool to a greater diversity of individuals. And other studies have documented that creativity actually tends to peak when workers aren’t at the office—in the early morning or just before bed.
The Stanford professors discovered something else: virtual collaboration has no impact on analytical reasoning, such as choosing which idea to pursue. Experts say that all of this highlights the need for intentional and nuanced hybrid schedules that revolve around what work people should do in person and what should be saved for when they meet virtually. For instance, in-person meetings, whether twice a week or twice a month, should be centered on brainstorming rather than other tasks. “Leaders are trying a lot of different things, and we haven’t seen any clear formats emerge,” Helms says. “All we know is that a generic work-from-home formula isn’t going to work for the masses.”