Remote working ‘led to missed collaborations and groupthink’

First study of its kind estimates lack of in-person interactions hampered innovation as academics spoke only to those they knew already

August 23, 2022
Source: Alamy

Academic collaboration was hindered by the switch to remote working during the pandemic because researchers missed out on forming ties with others during chance encounters in the workplace, according to a study.

In an attempt to gain a more empirical understanding of the repercussions of the switch to online-only work, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab examined nearly 3,000 anonymised emails sent by colleagues between December 2019 and November 2021.

Based on an analysis of the messages, they concluded that on average academics missed out on forming two new connections during the lockdown – 4,800 in total across the institution – while existing social contacts became “stagnant” because of the lack of physical proximity to others.

“Employees who are not co-located are less likely to form ties, weakening the spread of information in the network,” concludes the study, published in Nature Computational Science.

The co-lead authors, Daniel Carmody and Martina Mazzarello – both postdoctoral researchers at MIT – warned that, given the small size of research teams, online-only work heightened the risk of “groupthink” as academics tended to speak only to those they already knew, without being exposed to new ideas and the potential for new collaborations.

“Colleagues associated more with previous collaborators, which could create closed loops of communication, rather than with new potential collaborators, which enables the critical exchange that stimulates research and innovation,” Dr Carmody told Times Higher Education.

The findings build on the work of a pre-pandemic study also conducted at MIT that found that researchers in the same workspace are more than three times as likely to collaborate on co-authored papers and more than twice as likely to collaborate on patents compared with those who are 400m apart.

The institution’s switch to a more hybrid model of working as restrictions eased coincided with a partial recovery in the number of “weak ties” – defined as colleagues with no contacts in common establishing a link – which the authors say may show a balance of in-person and remote working can address some of the issues identified.

However, a lack of potential for social interaction continued to be a factor, with colleagues encouraged to keep a distance from each other in communal areas such as cafes, which have previously been found to be fertile ground for establishing new connections.

When redesigning working practices, campus leaders should identify the “minimum amount” of in-person work needed to ensure the generation of new ideas and innovation, the authors said.

Simply returning to offices, however, may not immediately restore the loss of social connections, and employers will need to build in new ways of fostering collaboration in both on- and offline spaces, they added.

“In designing hybrid work models, organisations should consider how much office-based interaction is needed to sustain their business’ creative culture,” Dr Carmody said.

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Reader's comments (4)

Nowt to do with the rather large shift to newer technologies than email over the last two years in workplaces, such as Teams/Zoom/Slack etc then? Rather a large leap to suggest changes observed solely in the MIT email network led to 'missed collaborations and groupthink'?
The continuing 'hybrid working' experiment is proving to be problematic in many Universities, especially when a rapid response from the Professional Health and Safety team/line managers is required, still the savings in heating and lighting costs passed on to home workers may go some way into paying any fines levied by the HSE/courts...
Thanks for the comment ResearchDweller. That's an important question, and one we considered while doing the research. The paper – which can be found here – goes into more detail on this. In figure 1 (and supplementary figure 30 panel c) the amount of email activity in the daily email networks did not significantly change. In fact many properties of the daily email networks remained unchanged through the pandemic, which is evidence that email was used in similar ways before and after the pandemic. It is of course possible that the content of emails changed (perhaps pre-pandemic emails were more informative while post-pandemic emails involved more scheduling), but we don't have access to that sort of information. While taking into account confidentiality issues, it would be interesting to investigate this aspect further.
To do collaboration and groupthink there are many kinds of software and online services. On the other hand, there are many valuable benefits for remote working i.e. decreasing fossil fuel consumption (like petrol) which is critical for saving the climate and its effect on increasing rainfall.