How to Boost Creativity and Innovation in Remote Work

5 min read
Innovation in Remote Work

Have you seen the headlines about the new study in Nature that “conclusively proves” remote work harms innovation and creativity? That study matches previous anecdotes by leaders like Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest, when she claimed remote work made her employees more productive but less innovative, or Sam Altman, the two-time CEO of Open AI, who said that remote work undermined creativity for startups. The narrative that traditional, in-person work environments are the sole breeding grounds for innovation and collaborative breakthroughs has dominated the discourse. In reality, this narrative is not only outdated but fundamentally flawed in the context of our modern, technologically-driven world. 

Unveiling the Facts: A Study on Innovation in Remote Work

The Nature study is nothing to sneeze at. Spearheaded by a team of researchers from the prestigious Oxford University and the University of Pittsburgh, this comprehensive analysis delved into a staggering expanse of data—over 20 million scientific studies and 4 million patent applications. Spanning an impressive half-century timeframe, this study serves as a time capsule, providing insights into collaborative trends and breakthroughs over decades.

At its core, this study appears to reinforce a long-held belief: that physical proximity is integral to innovation. It suggested a direct correlation between teams working in close quarters and their ability to produce pioneering work. The data painted a vivid picture: teams that shared physical workspaces were more likely to churn out groundbreaking patents and scientific discoveries. This finding was a substantial nod to traditional work environments, seemingly validating the argument that in-person collaboration is superior to its remote counterpart.

The Turning Point: A Shift in the Remote Work Landscape

However, as we venture further into the timeline, the narrative undergoes a dramatic transformation, particularly post-2010. This era marks the dawn of a technological renaissance, a period that saw significant advancements and innovations that have reshaped how we perceive and engage in remote work.

The shift in the landscape was illuminated by a critical follow-up study conducted by Carl Frey, one of the original authors of the Nature paper, and Giorgio President, both hailing from Oxford. Their research unveiled a striking contrast in the nature of remote collaboration after the landmark year of 2010. What they found was nothing short of revolutionary.

This period witnessed the birth and rapid adoption of technologies tailor-made for remote collaboration. Tools like Trello, Zoom, Google Drive, and Slack were not just digital platforms; they became the lifelines connecting remote teams across the globe. Their widespread use democratized remote work, breaking down the barriers once posed by physical distance.

Analyzing trends from the 1980s to the present, the data reveals a fascinating narrative: the once wide chasm between the innovative outputs of in-person and remote teams has been steadily narrowing. The 1980s marked the debut of the first scientific remote collaboration platform. Back then, the data hinted at a somewhat bleak picture for distributed teams – they faced a 5% innovation deficit compared to their in-person counterparts. It was as if remote collaboration carried an invisible tax on creativity and breakthroughs.

As we fast-forward to the dawn of the new millennium, the landscape begins to shift. Between 2000 and 2010, this innovation gap starts to shrink dramatically, dwindling down to a mere 1%. It’s a sign of changing times, indicating that the barriers once posed by physical distance are gradually losing their grip.

But the real plot twist emerges post-2015. In this period, the narrative flips completely. The once-negative coefficient, a marker of the remote work disadvantage, not only zeroes out but takes a surprising leap into positive territory. It’s a remarkable turnaround, a testament to the evolving efficacy of remote collaboration. This shift illustrates that distributed teams are no longer just catching up; they are paving new paths in innovation, rewriting the rules of collaborative creativity.

The role of infrastructure in this sweeping change cannot be understated. The quality of broadband infrastructure, often an overlooked factor, has proven to be a pivotal element in this equation. The studies underscore the crucial role played by robust internet connectivity in enabling and enhancing remote collaboration. Specifically, teams whose members had better broadband connectivity experienced improved outcomes on innovation. That evidence further supports the idea that refinements in remote work tech tools – which are enabled by fast broadband – offer the key for improved innovation.

New Techniques Improve Innovation in Remote Work

Here’s a critical aspect to consider about this study: the scientists there used old-school, traditional techniques for innovation. We now know about much better techniques for innovation in remote and hybrid settings, such as a technique I developed to help clients figure out how to adapt to hybrid and remote work called virtual asynchronous brainstorming.

This process starts with selecting digital collaboration tools. Google Forms, ideal for anonymous text-based idea submission, and MURAL, a virtual whiteboard suitable for visual brainstorming, stand out as prime examples.

In structuring the brainstorming session, teams may opt for real-time collaboration, where participants simultaneously contribute ideas via a video conferencing tool and the chosen brainstorming platform. More frequently, they use an asynchronous approach, which allows team members to add ideas independently by a set deadline, catering to different time zones and thinking styles.

Encouraging team members to generate ideas independently before the session can lead to a more diverse array of thoughts and perspectives. In real-time sessions, allotting 10-15 minutes for individual idea contribution proves beneficial. For asynchronous brainstorming, setting a clear deadline for idea submission is crucial.

Organizing the submitted ideas effectively is key. The facilitator needs to group similar ideas and remove duplicates while retaining all substantive contributions to streamline the brainstorming process. Following this, the team engages in evaluating and providing feedback on the ideas. Anonymous methods for commenting, rating, or voting foster an unbiased assessment based on criteria like novelty, practicality, and usefulness.

The process culminates in a discussion and finalization phase. Remote teams might convene in a follow-up video call for this, while hybrid teams benefit from combining virtual idea generation with an in-person meeting to finalize discussions. Implementing the selected ideas and assigning follow-up tasks ensures that the brainstorming session translates into actionable projects.

Virtual brainstorming’s key strengths include its inclusivity, its capacity to elicit a wide range of ideas, and its flexibility. It accommodates different personality types, fosters diverse ideas by removing social pressures, and offers participants the freedom to contribute at their own pace, particularly in asynchronous formats. This approach, therefore, stands as a dynamic and effective method for fostering innovation in today’s evolving workplace landscapes.

Innovation in Remote Work Through New Technology

The 2010s featured collaboration technology improving innovation in remote work, but the 2020s will feature a whole new area of technology boosting innovation. In my work with clients, I teach them how to integrate Generative AI into the creative process. For example, GPT-4 beat 91% of humans on a variation of the Alternative Uses Test and got over 99% in the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. My clients find that an AI-driven strategy not only matches but often exceeds traditional levels of innovation, catalyzing fresh, groundbreaking ideas and fostering an environment where creativity thrives, unbound by the constraints of physical collaboration.

Generative AI revolutionizes the brainstorming process, suggesting ideas, offering data-driven insights, and playing devil’s advocate. This integration leads to more diverse and comprehensive ideation, pushing beyond conventional boundaries. Specifically, the technique I developed for my clients leverages Generative AI for individual idea generation, enhancing remote creativity and reducing reliance on traditional in-person collaboration. Here’s how it works:

  • Initial Idea Generation: Individuals input a basic concept or problem statement into a Generative AI tool, which then generates a range of ideas, perspectives, and solutions. This helps explore various angles that might be overlooked in conventional brainstorming.
  • Refining and Evaluating Ideas: AI evaluates the generated ideas for potential impact, feasibility, and market readiness, helping to shortlist the most promising ideas for team discussion.
  • Enhancing Creativity with AI-assisted Tools: AI-assisted design tools, predictive analytics, and simulation software further develop and visualize ideas, adding depth and clarity.
  • Collaborative Integration: Individuals bring these AI-enhanced ideas to their team, ensuring that the discussions are focused on well-thought-out, data-backed, and innovative concepts. These meetings work well remotely or in-person, but I encourage hybrid teams to meet in person if possible for this stage.
  • Continuous Feedback Loop: Feedback and insights from team discussions are fed back into the AI system, creating a cycle of continuous improvement and innovation.

The profound impact of AI integration led to strategic changes in business operations. One notable example: a client company – a late-stage tech startup – which found its workers were more productive after going remote during the pandemic, but struggled with innovation. By adopting this technique, the company boosted its innovation to pre-pandemic levels, and made the tough decision to release their $1.2 million annual office lease, reallocating these funds to areas like research and development, marketing, and further AI integration.

Rethinking Remote Work: A Paradigm Shift

The implications of these findings are profound for businesses, especially in fast-paced industries like technology, where staying ahead of the curve is crucial. The traditional belief that innovation is geographically bound to office spaces is being challenged by empirical evidence. Indeed, a poll I ran myself on my LinkedIn profile – where many of my clients and their staff members follow me – shows that many more of them believe remote work to facilitate creativity than to reduce it. Remote work, when supported by the right technology and infrastructure, is not just a viable alternative to in-person collaboration; it’s a superior one.

Key Take-Away

Remote work, aided by advanced tech, fosters innovation, challenging the notion that creativity thrives only in physical offices. Share on X

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at