The future of innovation

by Sarah Firisen

For a long time, an accepted principle of corporate life has been that to take advantage of spontaneous ideation to drive innovation, people need to be in the same physical space. To encourage innovation, Apple, the accepted exemplar of an innovative company, built its headquarters in such a way as to try to spark these innovative interactions;  “It’s hoped that by housing so many employees in one facility, workers will be more likely to build relationships with those outside of their team, share ideas with co-workers with different specialties and learn about opportunities to collaborate.”

Another principle, as this McKinsey piece claims, is that “Innovation is a team sport….when it comes to innovation, it is rare to see individuals who possess the full range of skills needed to lead an initiative.” And, at least until March 2020, the assumption was that the only successful way to collaborate creatively was in person. The brainstorming workshop, or team whiteboarding off-site, was something that most of us in white-collar jobs have been part of in some form or at some time. 

At this point, it’s not news that many, maybe even most, of the white-collar workers who have been able to work remotely throughout the pandemic don’t want to return to the office. I’ve written about the, perhaps surprising, results of the unforeseen work-from-home mass experiment: productivity and worker satisfaction are up. And while some companies, particularly financial institutions, are starting to demand that people come in for at least 2-3 days a week, other companies are beginning to accept the reality that they may never be able to force everyone to be in the office regularly. 

It’s been clear for a while that if mostly remote work becomes the new normal, this will have all sorts of ramifications, not the least of which are in the commercial real estate industry as companies reconsider what kind of office size and layout works best now. When it was clear how things were trending in March, I discussed how different office configurations might better accommodate the collaborative team meetings that we’ve been led to believe are significantly more productive in person. 

But recently, an article from the New York Times questioned even this widely held belief. Perhaps we’re not just more productive in our homes’ relative peace and quiet, maybe we’re also more creative. ‘“We freed people of group think, we freed them of some exclusion and disrespect, we freed them of micromanaging, deafening and distracting noise,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “We have literally a mountain of evidence that if you let individuals generate ideas alone, you not only get more ideas, you get better ideas.”’

Of course, not everyone’s home is quieter and more peaceful. And not everyone’s personality type lends itself to solo ideation. Indeed, this Forbes piece claims that innovation was down while productivity was up during the pandemic.  But was this instead because many people didn’t have quiet at home with children and young adults all trying to do remote learning out of the same space? Now that students are back in person, perhaps the quality of at-home creativity will increase.

If there is some truth to the New York Times’ theory, does that challenge one of the last rationales of the back-to-the-office argument? After all, it’s not that much of a shock that offices can be distracting. Particularly as open office layouts have become more prevalent. In fact, the Times article goes on to say that some companies are trying to accommodate this reality by creating “quiet zones” within the office. 

And what of the Apple theory that spontaneous office interactions are a great source of innovative thinking? Another NYT piece last year even questioned that, “Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people…“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”’

I’m a classic extrovert, and I thoroughly enjoy a good brainstorming session with the right group of people around an interesting topic. But I think I’ve had some of my best ideas over the years alone. In 2008, the New Yorker published a piece called The Eureka Hunt, which I found fascinating, and continue to refer back to. It discusses the phenomenon of great ideas and solutions to problems coming to us, not when we’re trying to solve them, but rather in the shower, on the drive home, just as we’re waking up in the morning. ‘“The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.”’

Even as an extrovert, the psychological phenomenon laid out in The Eureka Hunt is very familiar to me. I do still think there is a place for in-person meetings for some things; being on a long zoom meeting is exhausting. But I’m no longer convinced that ideation and innovation are necessarily what those in-person meetings should be for.  It remains to be seen whether corporate America, however reluctantly, comes around to the same conclusion.