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Remote Work Might Help Workers Innovate and Collaborate. Here's Why.

People like to claim that collaboration and creative thinking have suffered from remote work. Let me tell you why I think they're wrong.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the shift to remote work, companies are trying to figure out how the next chapter of the workplace environment is going to unfold. Is the traditional office dead? Do we lose something by not having teams colocated? Is a hybrid solution viable? What if everyone stays remote? Do any of these approaches result in a  sustainable competitive advantage? 

Related: Remote Work Is Here to Stay: Are You Ready for the New Way of Life?

The advantage of being alone

Traditional in-office life, particularly for the vast majority of us that inhabit the cubical world,  means Joe/Jane You-Know-Who from the department next door stopping by your desk with coffee to talk about the latest office gossip or fill you in on their upcoming vacation. Once those types of interruptions happen, it’s difficult to get back into a focused state. According to a recent Washington Post article, researchers calculate that it takes over 20 minutes to get back into the swing of things, and because interruptions happen repeatedly throughout the day, you may end up unable to get to everything you need to do, even when your workload is reasonable. 

According to a recent survey conducted by Harvard Business School Online, 50% of the 1,500 employees surveyed said that collaboration did not decrease with remote work. In fact, one-third felt their overall work productivity and quality had increased, and one-third reported that they felt better able to focus. In this same survey, over 80% said they preferred to continue to work remotely some (61%) or all (27%) of the time.

Remote-work setups aren’t entirely immune to this problem. Just ask anybody who’s got Slack alerts pinging all day long. But remote work can give you more control over your time, which offers you the seeming luxury of uninterrupted time to just sit, think creatively and have your own “aha” moments. Then, when you do get together with others on your team, the collaborative meetings punctuate that solo ideation and put the independent thinking into a broader context.

Related: Remote Work Is Here to Stay. It's Time to Update the Way You Lead.

But what about relationships?

The big concern with remote setups, of course, is whether you lose the chance to form resilient bonds with your teammates when you aren’t in person. And there’s some truth to the fact that, if everything you do over your phone, chat or video client is only transactional, then the superficiality of it all can be a problem. This means that you have to be more intentional about carving out time meant for connecting. 

As a personal example, I make it a point to block out a pretty big chunk of my Monday afternoons; I intentionally avoid scheduling any meetings during that block. If someone sends me an email, I take it as an opportunity to pick up the phone, address the issue in real-time and then lead into hearing about the person and his or her day. It’s similar to having office hours, but it’s free-flowing and flexible. It’s a purposeful attempt to simulate the kind of everyday unplanned interactions — for example, bumping into someone in the elevator — that I’d have in person.

Although I’m clearly of the opinion that remote work can be at least as productive if not more so than the traditional pre-pandemic office dwelling, I still think in-person interactions have their place. Our CTO, for example, instituted twice-weekly “engagement days”: Staff come to the office knowing that there will be collaboration opportunities, as almost everyone will be there, albeit with flexible start and end times so no one has to commute during rush hour. I also recently hired someone new, and we both made a point to come to the office during her first day so we could have lunch together and get to know each other a bit better. Now that travel has opened up, I recently attended a conference with a vice president whom I hired to work remotely full-time during the pandemic but had never met in real life. This was a great opportunity to spend some time casually chatting. The key takeaway is to move beyond a simple “day count” approach (how many days one spends in the office) and toward an intentional, thought-out “collaboration” approach.

Despite all the concern about the lack of happenstance interaction in the remote world, my experience is that it was often rare in the pre-pandemic traditional office. Even when a company encourages its people to break boundaries, doing so can be a logistical challenge. If my office is on the third floor with all the marketing people and yours is on the fifth with all the accounting people, for instance, then it’s not that easy to run into you at random throughout the day. And, unless I was intentional about it, how often did we plan to go to lunch or have a coffee together? From that perspective, we might be overstating the risk of losing out on a multitude of interactions that can spark and support real relationships. The siloing that occurred in the in-person office is more easily carried over in the remote world.

At the same time, remote work is not the same as it used to be either. We have more digital tools than ever to make the time we do carve out together effective for collaboration. Remote workers have ways to stay connected and feel involved. It’s a matter of integrating those tools in ways that make people feel comfortable sharing, which requires taking the time to really get to know and understand the team.

Related: What a Successful Transition to Permanent Remote Work Looks Like

When in doubt, ask

Traditional offices can allow team members to interact in ways that support good relationships. Even so, the extent to which people actually connect on a deep level can be limited by issues like siloing, which is still common. Newer remote work options, such as Slack, Zoom and MS Teams, have gone mainstream and changed how easy it is for remote workers to connect. This means that the shift to remote work might not be as disruptive as some people make it out to be. In fact, remote work might foster creativity and collaboration by giving employees more time by themselves to work through problems and come up with information that has value for the group. 

When you hear people talking about the migration back to the office and need to decide what route to take with your own team, acknowledge that people need time alone to think, no matter where they work. Some people genuinely do better in this arena if they’re in a remote space and equipped to make the extra effort necessary to carve out meaningful time with others. When in doubt, talk to your people and ask them what they feel comfortable doing. They will always be your biggest source of direction.  

Bill Packer

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Bill Packer serves as the COO of American Financial Resources. He holds an MBA in Finance, a BA in Economics, and is a certified project manager. Amongst several philanthropic endeavors, Packer is a lead diver, educator and mentor with the NY Aquarium’s volunteer scuba diving team.