There will be more innovation post-COVID. Here’s why.

Harry L. Davis | Oct 20, 2020

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic threw our lives into disarray, we’ve had to change how we do anything involving other people. Rather than counting on bumping into colleagues in the hall, we now have to schedule Zoom calls around the competing demands (childcare, a broken water heater) that everyone is dealing with. There isn’t time for the kind of small talk that often, unpredictably, leads to big ideas. 

There are unquestionably benefits to handling some tasks over video conference. Last spring, I taught a class in which groups of students take on consulting projects with the guidance of Chicago-based Kearney. Consultants spend countless hours on airplanes to make face-to-face meetings with their clients possible, and it’s a big part of their culture. In past years, regular in-person meetings and schmoozing were built into the syllabus. 

Of course, none of that was possible this year. Our students were thrust into a new world where even senior executives were caught off-guard and without webcams. Whiteboard brainstorming sessions became Zoom calls. 

Curious about their experiences, we surveyed the students about the impact of remote work throughout the quarter. While pessimistic at first, by the end of the nine-week course, they later felt that their remote situation was actually helping them be more efficient and helped them do do a better job responding to their clients’ needs. I had a similar experience with teaching remotely—although daunted at first, I found that I was able to deliver my classes effectively, even if I was tethered to my desk chair. 

Once the pandemic is behind us, we’ll have to choose what to return to and what to keep from our remote way of working. I think Zoom and its ilk will continue to have an important place for those situations where teams are geographically dispersed or there’s some urgent decision that needs to be made. But the type of work that delivers innovation—creative work—will still best be done in person. 

Stanford sociologist James G. March helped popularize the concept of the “ambidextrous organization” by identifying two broad categories of work firms must engage in for long-term survival. Exploitation refers to matters of efficiency, refinement, and execution, whereas exploration connotates experimentation, discovery, and even play. This way of thinking may prove to be very helpful in considering what tasks we can continue to do remotely and what others we should do in person.  

Whether we like it or not, there are now two worlds, remote and in-person, in which work happens. We need to be strategic about how we use them both.

It may vary by industry, but I bet most people can recall a time when a chance meeting with an acquaintance or a long lunch led, quite serendipitously, to a new idea or direction that was never on any agenda or could have been conceived of a priori. (I have many examples of my own—the evolution of Booth’s Executive MBA Program owes much to a long, entirely unexpected detour to Andorra.) 

In some cases, it’s about collecting higher-quality data and filtering out noise (sometimes, depending on your home office setup, quite literally). Sometimes, these data are somatic. Is the other person leaning in to hear me better, indicating interest? Or does their smile seem forced, like they have somewhere else to be? I’ve long encouraged students to see these data as valuable, rather than dismiss them because they’re hard to quantify. We’ve learned that “Zoom fatigue” is a real phenomenon with implications for how many hours per day we can productively talk to a screen, regardless of who’s on it. 

It’s also a matter of cultivating a sense of openness and “adaptive curiosity,” a term I’ve borrowed from robotics and artificial intelligence. In essence, it means seeking out opportunities that maximize learning. 

Not coincidentally, these are exactly the sorts of experiences that often appear inefficient. I recently helped launch a pilot program for Booth alumni in India and had been planning to make the trip at the one-year mark to meet with the participants. Sure, a quick Zoom call (or better yet, an e-mailed survey) would give me some idea of how things were going. But would that convey how personally invested I am in the program’s success? What candid insights would someone share over dinner that they’d never say in a call with others? More to the point, how much time would be saved by establishing these things up front before we expand the program? “Efficiency” is often a matter of perspective.  

Despite the disruption, the pandemic can be an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can and should use our time when things are back to normal. We may be able to save a lot of time by handling some tasks—the exploitative, time-sensitive, analytical tasks—remotely. But in the long run, Zoom won’t be the answer for the explorative, creative work that keeps organizations vital. Whether we like it or not, there are now two worlds, remote and in-person, in which work happens. We need to be strategic about how we use them both.

Harry L. Davis is the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at Chicago Booth.

A version of this column appeared as part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.