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A Little Distance from Colleagues May Spike Creativity

Physical separation among coworkers isn’t necessarily an obstacle to innovative collaboration, and other types of breathing room may actually help productivity.

Bottom Line: Physical separation among coworkers isn’t necessarily an obstacle to innovative collaboration, and other types of breathing room may actually help productivity.

There is an idea floating around organizations that has an intriguing catchphrase (pdf): “Out of sight means out of sync.” Generally, this description is used to illustrate the belief that when coworkers do their jobs at a distance from one another, communication breaks down and the efficiency of a team’s performance, as well as the quality of its output, suffers. It appears logical that if you’re not talking face-to-face with colleagues, thus picking up on visual cues, misunderstandings can occur. And opportunities to contribute creative ideas, spurred on by informal conversations among coworkers in the same set of cubicles or offices, could be squandered. Novel ways of considering things can even be overlooked.

Physical proximity would seem to matter most in innovation-heavy sectors that depend on people combining different bits of specialized knowledge to produce breakthrough ideas that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Indeed, given the rise of virtual teams scattered across the globe and the ever-increasing urgency to bring innovative products and services to market, the potential detrimental effects of distance have taken on even more importance.

But according to a new study, separation anxiety may be unnecessary — or at least overwrought. Previous researchers have tended to treat distance as one conflated, simplified concept — that is, distance was any geographical detachment among coworkers. But by ignoring the complexities and nuances in the types of distance and social interactions that affect firms’ day-to-day operations, researchers have failed to appreciate the sometimes unexpected ways that certain types of distance can help, rather than hinder, employees’ creativity and innovative productivity.

Researchers have failed to appreciate the unexpected ways that certain types of distance can help employees’ creativity.

For this study, the authors explored the research and development activities of a Dutch multinational chemical firm with branches and production facilities in 49 countries and annual sales of €8 billion (US$9.03 billion). Through this lens, they categorized workplace distance into seven measures. They began, naturally, with (1) the physical separation between colleagues. They also considered (2) organizational distance, or the barriers that inevitably exist between departments and discourage informal interactions, as well as (3) hierarchical distance, or the gap in power and autonomy between, say, lab scientists and their senior managers.

To account for (4) personal differences, the authors factored in how much of a bond employees felt with their colleagues. To evaluate (5) cognitive distance, they measured the extent to which colleagues thought coworkers introduced different ways of thinking and new perspectives. Finally, they weighed how much (6) direct contact and (7) indirect contact the researchers had with their peers and supervisors: That is, could they pick up the phone and get a desired colleague on the line directly, or rely on their email system to eventually get messages to the right person?

To attain a comprehensive view of the firm’s knowledge network — the way information and insights were advanced, cultivated, and shared throughout the company — the authors surveyed 195 lab researchers and project managers responsible for the development and rollout of innovative products across 24 different departments. The company makes nutritional and pharmaceutical ingredients as well as chemical compounds. The employees were asked about their contacts within the rest of the company and the type of information and advice they received from their colleagues. From this, the authors essentially produced a map charting who exchanged innovative knowledge with whom.

The authors also had access to company records about individuals’ on-the-job performance and asked managers to assess the creative contributions made by the scientists in the sample. The researchers complemented this somewhat subjective measure of individual inventiveness with an objective calculation — to wit, the number of patents granted to each lab researcher, controlling for the amount of time he or she had been at the firm and the size of the department that researcher had worked in.

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the authors found no evidence that geographical distance significantly reduced employees’ individual innovation or patent activities. The walls thrown up between departments seemed to be irrelevant as well, presumably because the lab workers could find less formal ways to communicate via email, intranet, or other technological means. Personal differences were also found to be insignificant to creativity and patent pursuits; apparently, a work grudge is not enough to tamp down scientists’ enthusiasm for innovation.

But a few of the other types of distance did have effects, albeit subtle ones. For example, cognitive separation facilitated more patent activity but less individual day-to-day creativity. The benefit of talking to someone with a different perspective is apparently most valuable when focusing on delivering a specific end product, such as a patent application, but it gets in the way of inventiveness and originality.

Direct connections with contacts produced negligible results; however, a large, even distant indirect network had a significant positive effect on employees’ individual creativity and patent designs. Again, the ability to communicate via Skype, social media, and smartphone appears to provide greater access to indirect contacts, and thus employees can benefit from a wider web of connections with people they rarely, if ever, see face-to-face.

Perhaps most interestingly, a hierarchical power gap actually stimulated both employees’ innovative behavior and their ability to churn out patents. In this case, the authors posit that workers inhabiting a lower rung are likely volunteering their best ideas to those further up the chain in order to curry favor with superiors.

In short, managers would do well to reconsider the drawbacks historically associated with a far-flung workforce and acknowledge that some types of distance can actually spur employees to perform at a higher level. Indeed, in today’s increasingly global marketplace and with today’s communication technology, having employees with knowledge of a local economy, resource, or labor pool can be more beneficial than clustering everyone together in one room.

Source:Distances in Organizations: Innovation in an R&D Lab,” by Wilfred Dolfsma (University of Groningen) and Rene van der Eijk (RSM Erasmus University), British Journal of Management, Apr. 2016, vol. 27, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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