In the past five months, we’ve become pretty adaptable. But as we make the daily, short-term adjustments our new reality requires, we might be doing long-term damage to our ability to be creative—unless we rethink our approach to work.
Innovating is a function of collaboration. And no matter how productive a company is on Zoom, “people learn the most from those who are physically proximate,” says Sharique Hasan, associate professor of strategy at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Proximity makes people more likely to collaborate and seek feedback and advice, and this leads to higher-quality, more novel, and more diverse ideas.”
Unfortunately, many of us probably aren’t going back to the office soon. About 65 million Americans—40% of the workforce—now work remotely, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist. He predicts this shift will lead to a drop in the number of patents, copyrights, and major product launches—especially in industries that make physical objects, such as computer hardware, or whose employees work in laboratories, like biotech.
The key to mitigating these effects is to replicate the spirit of collaboration and serendipity in an organization whose workers are physically isolated. But much of our thinking about how to do this has been wrongheaded. We’ve been exporting in-office routines to an online environment.
“A big part of making remote work beneficial is by not trying to re-create what you already have,” says Aaron Dignan, co-founder of TheReady, a consulting firm that works with Fortune 1000 companies, and author of Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? Dignan pushes clients to have teams meet only when confusion or conflict emerges. “Deep thinking and collision of ideas happens, but not in the moment,” he says.
Jason Fried, co-founder of collaboration-software maker Basecamp, which has been almost entirely virtual since its founding in 1999, urges a shift from “real-time interactions to asynchronous interactions.” Eliminate meetings, in other words, and give employees “time to express complete thoughts that others can then consider.”
Workers may not interact as much using this method, but the quality of their interactions could be higher. And managers won’t have to try so hard to convince employees that working from home isn’t a poor proxy of office life. People are thinking, I can’t wait until this is over, Fried says. “They’re not in the mindset of wanting to get better at it.” A move away from grafted-on scheduling could be the start of that process.
Three ways to better connect
• Don’t stare at yourself
Disable the self-view function on a videoconference call. “It makes you self-conscious, and that detracts from creativity,” says Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
• Go on blind dates
Zoom has a “breakout room” function, which randomly puts meeting participants into small groups. (Slack’s Donut app works similarly, creating random pairs.) “You can put people together in ways that might never have happened in the office,” says Beth Comstock, a former vice chair of General Electric Co. who led its business-innovation unit.
• Pick up the phone
Make some of your daily interactions walk and talks. “We are all so sick of sitting at our desks and staring at screens when we need to connect with each other,” Edmondson says, adding that even small changes in our routines can shake loose big ideas.
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