Innovation just isn’t happening over Zoom

December 17, 2020, 8:42 PM UTC
“Online collaboration tools are full of friction and just don’t capture the exchange of ideas” the way face-to-face interaction does, writes Tarun Wadhwa.
(Getty Images)

Not long ago, we thought that interacting with coworkers over the Internet would accelerate our ability to develop new methods, ideas, and perspectives. Working remotely was supposed to make us more engaged and productive, liberating our creativity from the confines of the office. I have learned during the pandemic the hard way that this belief was wrong. 

For the last four semesters, I’ve co-taught a class at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus called Exponential Innovation with my father, Vivek Wadhwa. We teach students about advancing technologies, how these trends are overturning industries, and how they can become entrepreneurs to tackle the grand challenges of humanity. Each class has been a great success in terms of the impact it had on students, with as many as one-third saying it changed their goals in life and many more telling us how their mind has been opened to all sorts of new possibilities. It’s been amazing to see the innovative startup ideas the students have come up with by interacting with each other.   

Last year, one of our students, Mark Langer, developed an idea to build electric, autonomous drones for cargo transport, which he developed into a startup called Amelia Aero. When I asked Langer what about the class worked for him, he told me, “Without the forum of minds in that class, the company would not have developed into what it is today.” In previous classes, students have developed robots for inventory management and machine learning applications to reduce health care costs, among other things.   

This spring we took our in-person class fully remote. This time, however, the groundbreaking ideas just didn’t materialize.   

The students were just as brilliant as they always are. They all made a great effort to stay engaged, and they gave us high marks for instruction. Many told us they found the class valuable. But the sparks didn’t fly as they usually do. This time, there were no new ventures launched, no amazing insights discovered, and no long emails about career paths changed and outlooks expanded.   

I’ve come to believe that meaningful collaboration is far more about the free-flowing, back-and-forth exchange of ideas, the informal discussions, and the unplanned gatherings than being able to speak to each other online. 

Every year, we would make it a point to make sure that students worked in diverse groups of five. We insisted on students with different backgrounds coming together to brainstorm. They would debate, discuss, and challenge each other. Oftentimes, one group would overhear another, and the conversation would spill over into a new subject. Students would approach each other after a session to offer casual recommendations for material they might be interested in, or YouTube videos they needed to watch. 

This year we used the same working-group strategy. But that magic just didn’t translate to a breakout room on videoconference. When we did these exercises in person, our room would be full of energy and excitement, but when I’d drop into online conversations, they were typically more dull and distracted. 

Innovation requires a human touch—there’s something special that happens when people are able to physically work together. They can look each other in the eyes, read body language, and see and hear the person with full clarity. One of the most powerful tools in business is a marker and a whiteboard. Online collaboration tools are full of friction and just don’t capture the exchange of ideas in a similar, seamless way. 

As Alan Murray reported recently in Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter, Google is planning to give its employee’s a three-day “flexible workweek” when they return to the office in September. Murray points out that Google has a lot of issues to work through—among them, it needs to decide which three days employees work and how employees now living in different geographies will factor into this. It’s a worthy effort, but Google will run into the same challenges as everyone else: Remote collaboration works well for certain tasks and approaches, but innovation is not one of them.  

For older workers with established networks, or teams with years of experience working together, there may be an exception. But the vast majority of employees are going to realize that bouncing ideas off peers and superiors is key to any efforts to innovate. In a remote environment, it’s harder to show their managers what they are capable of. They lose the benefits of spontaneity in the workplace. They can interact with the company’s culture only in a minimal way, and that will lead to increasing concerns about stagnating or being left behind.  

If Google and other companies looking to integrate remote and distributed teams into their innovation efforts, they need to find a way to upgrade the human element of collaboration—today’s tools and technologies just aren’t going to work. 

Tarun Wadhwa is an entrepreneur, strategist, lecturer, and writer who is working at the intersection of technology, innovation, global growth, security, and public policy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at Emory University Department of Political Science.

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