Research: Remote work could hamper scientific innovation

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Working from home is a subject of debate in many companies. Employees are keen to work remotely, while managers are concerned about the repercussions this way of working can have on business and company culture. A study published in the journal Nature weighs up the pros and cons, arguing that remote working may be detrimental to innovation.


Researchers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Oxford came to this conclusion after analysing over 20 million scientific papers and four million patents filed between 1960 and 2020. These documents, old as they are, show that collaborative remote work has become more commonplace over the years. For example, some of the papers studied were written by scientists separated by some 1,000 kilometers. For patents, these distances vary between 250 and 750 kilometers.

Although long-distance collaboration is now the norm, this type of organisation seems to be hindering innovation. Indeed, the study authors found that researchers working remotely devoted themselves more to technical tasks (carrying out experiments, analyzing data, etc) than to conceptual ones. As a result, they tended to come up with less innovative ideas than those who could share ideas face-to-face.

Scientific teams whose members lived in the same city were 22% more likely to come up with innovative patents than those whose participants were separated by several hundred kilometers, reports Business Insider. This figure rose to 27% for innovative papers.

More conducive to innovation

This suggests that our ability to innovate can be affected by distance. In a statement, lead co-author, Professor Lingfei Wu of the University of Pittsburgh, said: “True innovation often has a hometown. This is because geographical proximity breaks hierarchy, enabling flat team structures and intensive communication essential for conceiving ground-breaking ideas.”

It could be easy to assume that new technologies (videoconferencing software, artificial intelligence, etc) might offset this phenomenon, but technical progress alone may not be enough to stimulate innovation.


Lead co-author, Professor Carl Frey of Oxford University, said: “The computer revolution and the rise of the Internet has connected talent from all around the world yet, rather than accelerating as many predicted, studies have shown that breakthrough innovation is in decline. Our paper provides an explanation for why this happens: while remote collaboration via the internet can bring together diverse pools of talent, it also makes it harder to fuse their ideas.”

The findings of this research could have important political implications. Indeed, the spread of remote working could limit opportunities to think differently and imagine solutions that shake up pre-established models. But it’s an illusion to think that face-to-face working is the key to more innovation.

Above all, if they hope to foster innovation, companies need to build working environments where employees can listen to each other, share ideas and argue their points of view.

– AFP Relaxnews

– TheStar

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