There’s no question that remote work is here to stay. Some companies may ban it, others opt for a hybrid approach and others embrace it fully, but in general the WFH movement is not going to disappear anytime soon. According to Forbes, 12.7% of full-time workers are remote while 28.2% operate within a hybrid model of some sort.
There have been studies on productivity and working from home, which has ignited a fierce debate for those on both sides. On the whole, the majority of workers say they get more work done when working from home. But what if we were measuring it wrong all along? What if the quantity of a worker's output is not the only important factor impacted by working remotely?
An extensive new study published in the journal Nature on remote work and its impact on innovation gives insight into a missing and valuable piece of the puzzle. That together with research on productivity builds up more of a rounded picture of what happens when companies or workers opt for a remote set-up.
Remote work in the corporate world only really reached the mainstream in 2020 due to the pandemic, and as a relatively recent phenomenon there is little existing data and evidence on the subject.
However, by looking at scientists and inventors who have worked collaboratively at a distance with one another from across the globe for decades, researchers were able to collect a vast amount of data which brought some interesting and tangible results that can be applied to the corporate world.
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Researchers from Oxford University and the University of Pittsburgh analyzed 20 million scientific studies and 4 million patent applications from the last half a century. They were looking for the number of breakthroughs recorded by remote teams in comparison to in-house teams along with a number of other criteria in order to make it a fair experiment.
A Resounding Victory for Team IRL
The results were black and white. “Pro-office” executives from the business world will be smugly vindicated by the results of the study even if they could never quite put their finger on why they believed the office was better.
The study found that teams which worked together in person achieved more breakthroughs than those who worked separately from one another. For example, teams located in the same city versus those based several hundred miles apart, were 22% more likely to produce innovative patents.
What’s more, those in-person teams were 27% more likely to produce pioneering insights in scientific papers. A clear victory for those still going on about the importance of those “water cooler moments.”
Why Does WFH Decrease Innovation?
Interestingly, Carl Benedikt Frey, an economist at Oxford and a coauthor of the paper, still doesn’t believe all companies should go back to working onsite.
“But if you think of it purely from the perspective of trying to develop breakthrough technologies, you should probably be on-site as much as possible,” Frey said.
The study draws some theories as to why in-person collaborative teams seem to generate more novel ideas. It seems like the main advantage of in-person collaboration is the ability to hash out half-baked ideas and gain immediate input from others in a way that would simply be too long-winded and cringeworthy to do over messaging apps or email.
Frey uses the example of someone setting out to write an article. He says, “the very first conversation you have about it is usually not that crisp. It's slightly embarrassing. If you sit in the same room as somebody and something occurs to you, you'll probably just turn around and ask a question and get the input and feedback. But if it requires you to pick up the phone or send an email, then you might not even bother.”
So surely video conferencing solves the problem? Unfortunately, people are more timid about sharing their ideas on video calls versus in person. The study concludes that a combination of in-person and remote work would most likely be the way forward for companies to get the benefits of both ways of working.