Called Back to the Office? How You Benefit from Ideas You Didn’t Know You Were Missing

Leaders have fretted since COVID-19 lockdowns that collaboration and innovation might suffer when teammates interact less. New research
points to an emerging concern four years on, as organizations settle into remote, hybrid, and in-person configurations: Potentially fewer opportunities for vital knowledge sharing outside one’s core department.

That is one implication of a new study about how knowledge is shared that focuses on academia, but may offer lessons for technology, pharmaceutical development, and other STEM industries. In-person interactions with diverse intellectual viewpoints in classrooms, labs, dining halls, and elsewhere on campuses have a unique influence on the course of scientific research, according to the study, coauthored by Eamon Duede, a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Data Design Institute at Harvard, and Karim Lakhani, the Dorothy & Michael Hintze Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“They have a tendency to reproduce one another’s work, and so they get the feeling that they’re making progress. But in reality, there’s not enough independence in the system.”

While that may seem like common sense, there’s a twist: The interactions that matter most are not with the people you work with closely every day, such as people in your home department. Instead, the real influence comes from colleagues whose intellectual pursuits are vastly different from your own, according to the study. The HBS researchers collaborated with James Evans, professor at the University of Chicago, and Misha Teplitskiy, assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

People in the same discipline “ask the similar questions and approach those questions methodologically in similar ways,” says Duede, who studies scientific knowledge production. “They have a tendency to reproduce one another’s work, and so they get the feeling that they’re making progress. But in reality, there’s not enough independence in the system.”

While the study focused on universities, US companies alone spend more than $800 billion
annually on research and development (R&D), making the finding relevant for leaders of research-intensive organizations trying to calibrate hybrid work policies. To be sure, remote work can reduce office space costs for companies and provide employees with more flexibility, but the findings could offer a new lens into the far-flung connections offsite workers might not even know they’re missing.

When a person’s sphere shrinks

As a highly interdisciplinary researcher, Duede says he almost immediately felt his sphere of intellectual interactions narrow amid lockdowns, as teams formed virtual circles aligned to their own departments and disciplines. He began to wonder: “What’s the effect of all this on our ability to be influenced by one another?”

At the time, Duede was already studying intellectual influence and how knowledge is transferred as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. Duede and his team had been using Clarivate Web of Science to collect citation and reference patterns from more than 12,000 works across 15 disciplines published as of 2015, with the goal of exploring the role of geographic proximity on the evolution of ideas in scholarly thought. Disciplines included chemistry, molecular biology, physics, economics, and nanotechnology, among others.

As part of that effort, Duede and team had surveyed authors of papers in their dataset in 2018, asking them to rate the degree to which their scientific thinking was influenced by papers cited in their work.

However, persistent lockdowns and disciplinary isolation led Duede to wonder whether the data they had collected could be used to understand the association of geographic and intellectual proximity on intellectual influence.

The power of diverse interactions

The study suggests that personal connections and proximity matter most. In fact, researchers are more than twice as likely to study and cite papers of people they know personally, as well as those they learn of through on-campus presentations or seminars or that they receive from colleagues.

Interestingly, though, the study highlighted that researchers were most strongly influenced by colleagues at their own institutions who pursued questions “intellectually distant” from their own. On average, an individual researcher is 63 percent more likely to be highly influenced by works that tackle different subjects or present different viewpoints by colleagues at their home institution, according to the study.

“At its worst, it would be a kind of stagnation, where we fail to influence one another.”

Duede says the findings are significant because of a university’s intellectual and cultural diversity and its unique ability to allow those different perspectives to cross-pollinate through committees, seminars, speeches, athletic events, or even chance meetings. Zoom, Slack, and social media facilitate some virtual information sharing, but it’s unclear to what degree.

While it’s still early days in the widespread adoption of hybrid work, one of the main risks of virtual work within academia is “the homogenization of the intellectual perspectives I interact with,” he says. “At its worst, it would be a kind of stagnation, where we fail to influence one another.”

The pattern could give rise to “scientific monocultures,” or communities of researchers that share the same view, he says.

Implications beyond universities

While the study focuses specifically on academic research, it may also have meaning for other organizations, Duede says—those that similarly lean on employees for their ability to think creatively and develop innovative ideas, or those with significant R&D operations.

“We can use the same words as scientists to describe what they do—develop plans, think creatively and prospectively, and manage their priorities in certain ways,” Duede says. “And these are the kinds of things that are stimulated by influence—by the plans, creativity, and prospective thinking of others. I suspect that our findings can generalize to any kind of institution.”

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Image: Illustration created by HBSWK using images generated by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool and with an image by AdobeStock/

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