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Musk is pushing staff back to the office, but the research is only partly on his side

One study found that in-person meetings yielded more creative ideas than Zoom calls, but there’s no clear scientific answer in the debate about in-office versus remote work.
Elon Musk
In an email announcing his remote work policy, Elon Musk said Tesla would not be able to "create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth" by "phoning it in."Susan Walsh / AP file

In internal emails that leaked last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his employees must spend at least 40 hours per week in the office or resign.

"There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while," Musk wrote in one of the emails, which were first reported by Electrek, an electric vehicle news site.

The approach stands in contrast to the policy at Twitter, which Musk agreed to acquire in April (though he has since threatened to back out of the deal). Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said in March that employees could work full time from home "forever" or choose to return to the office, whatever they felt was most productive and creative.

There's no clear-cut, research-backed answer as to whether remote or in-person work is more conducive to creativity. But the pandemic has spurred a new wave of scientific inquiry into that question.

An April study published in the journal Nature found that when video conferencing, engineers across five countries came up with fewer creative ideas than those who met in person. But that study also found that video conferencing was as effective as in-person meetings for choosing which ideas to pursue.

When it comes to productivity, a working paper released last summer found that remote employees at an IT services company in Asia were up to 19 percent less productive from March through August 2020, even though work outside normal business hours rose 18 percent. (That may come as little surprise, given the stress and distractions of the early pandemic months.) However, out of more than 30,000 U.S. workers surveyed from May 2020 to March 2021, 40 percent still said they were more productive at home than in the office.

"It’s not an either-or thing," said Jeff DeGraff, a clinical professor of management and organization at the University of Michigan.

"When you start coming up with ideas that are more radical, and you need to do it in a more focused way, then I think the claims that they’re making [in the Nature study] are absolutely correct," DeGraff said. But when it comes to bringing an idea to fruition, he added, remote work may be just as efficient as in-person collaboration.

The value of in-person connection

"The office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office," Musk wrote in one email about his new policy.

A 2021 study published in Nature surveyed more than 60,000 Microsoft employees and found that remote work did indeed make it harder for people to collaborate.

The recent study on video meetings also found that collaborations are more fruitful in person. In a second part of the research, college students paired up to brainstorm new uses for products such as a Frisbee or bubble wrap. The researchers found that virtual pairs made less eye contact and didn't pick up on as many visual cues, which seemed to affect their ability to come up with creative ideas.

During an in-person meeting, "your brain is processing a lot more than you think it is," DeGraff said. "You’re processing the mood. You’re processing the energy."

But during a video call, it can be easy to get distracted, according to Jonathan Johnson, the CEO of Overstock.

"I think we’ve lost some focus in meetings," Johnson said. "If everyone’s candid, they will admit that they answer email while they’re in a Zoom meeting."

Hybrid meetings with both remote and in-person employees aren't ideal either, he added.

"We were very productive during the pandemic when we were all at home, but there was a real awkwardness and unproductivity when some were in the office and some were at home," Johnson said. "People in the conference room felt disadvantaged, and the people at home felt disadvantaged."

Does flexibility breed creativity?

Adam Clairmont, a sound designer at a production facility called Overit in Albany, New York, said the pandemic brought new avenues for creativity in his work.

Clairmont said he thought his job had to be done in person until the pandemic started, but in 2020 his team started transmitting audio over Zoom, and even provided sound engineering for the film "Nightmare Alley" that way. That project was more collaborative than others done before the pandemic, Clairmont said, because people could participate from all over the world.

"Someone who’s editing might be in Toronto, the producer might be in New York, the talent could be in California. So they never would have been in those sessions together. The pros are really, really starting to outweigh the cons," Clairmont said.

In survey conducted by Deloitte, 48 percent of workers from various industries said they were spending more time thinking creatively in April 2021 than they had a year earlier, when remote work was just beginning.

Many employees realized during the pandemic that they don’t need to be in an office to do their most creative work, said Steve Hatfield, the future of work global leader at Deloitte.

"We used to get together physically in meetings to do all sorts of things that don’t require necessarily being in person," he said. "We’re starting to realize with better clarity when it makes sense for us to be together most."

Johnson said he sometimes feels more creative in nonoffice settings.

“When the weather’s nice, I go sit outside, I read or I think, and it spurs creativity," he said.

Overstock is allowing senior vice presidents to determine how often their teams come into the office. Some people come in once a week or once a month, he said, but most employees come in semiannually for two days.

"For us, creativity has not suffered being apart," Johnson said.