Innovation in Remote Teams is Challenging. A New Study Reveals Why.

It’s time to rethink how innovation happens in remote teams. In this article, we dive into the challenges faced by remote teams when it comes to fostering innovation. Drawing insights from a recent study analyzing millions of research articles and patent applications, we uncover fascinating findings about the impact of remote collaboration on breakthrough ideas. Join us as we explore the reasons behind these struggles and discover strategies to unlock innovation potential in your remote team

Are you thinking to set-up a remote R&D function? Well, it might be time to rethink about it! Breakthrough innovation occurs with greater frequency in teams that engage in face-to-face collaboration as opposed to remote interactions. A recent paper by Lin and colleagues published in Nature titled “Remote Collaboration Fuses Fewer Breakthrough Ideas“. Indeed, this work makes clear that big ideas are more likely to happen during face-to-face interactions.

The research

The study  is based on an extensive analysis. It includes a staggering 20 million research articles and 4 million patent applications spanning several decades. Specifically, the researchers measured team whether the team operated in a remote/close collaboration by considering the distance between the institutions where scientists worked. The researchers also developed a new metric called the ‘D score’ to measure disruption. In practice, work receives a higher D score when other papers cite it but do not cite the papers it cited.

The researchers controlled for various pertinent variables, such as team diversity, size, age, and selection biases. However, they found that none of these factors accounted for the significant discrepancy in breakthrough innovation between teams that collaborate in person and those operating remotely.

Why are remote teams struggling with innovation?

The research partly explains the results. Indeed, the paper proposes that collaboration among distributed and in-person teams happen at different stages:

  • Remote teams mostly collaborate around late-stage technical tasks that involve codified knowledge
  • In-person teams engage much more in conceptual tasks that are essential for innovation. These include generating new ideas, discussing theoretical implications, or designing research.

However, other psychological mechanisms may contribute to this effect.

  1. Informal Collaborations: In-person team dynamics offer a distinct advantage through the cultivation of informal conversations beyond the confines of work hours. These might seem serendipitous discussions, which are not bound by specific task-oriented agendas. However, they have the potential to generate unanticipated and highly creative ideas. Conversely, these ideas might not emerge within the structured environment of formal meetings.
  2. Social Identity: In-person teams possess a stronger group identity, fostering a sense of shared purpose among members. This social cohesion imbues the team with self-confidence, enabling them to champion the value of their ideas and embrace disruptive thinking. Additionally, a salient social identity motivates individuals to devote extra time and cognitive resources outside normal working hours to intuitively ponder complex problems.
  3. Team flow:  a state in which teams achieve a remarkable level of synchronicity, creativity, and innovation. This state is akin to individual flow, characterized by a heightened state of consciousness and optimal performance during an intrinsically rewarding activity. In the context of team flow, individuals within the team experience a profound state of engagement. In practice, they are fully present, receptive to others’ ideas, and emotionally attuned to the collective goal. Then, the synergistic effect of team flow fosters a co-creative atmosphere where ideas can flourish, cooperation intensifies, and the pursuit of innovative solutions becomes exhilarating.

How to make remote teams better at innovation?

To optimize remote collaboration and mitigate the potential drawbacks, organizations can explore the implementation of several strategies.

Facilitating Informal Connections

Recognizing the value of informal conversations, organizations can create avenues for remote team members to engage in non-task-related discussions. Virtual coffee breaks, dedicated chat platforms for creative brainstorming, or virtual social events can help foster serendipitous encounters and encourage the exchange of innovative ideas beyond structured work interactions.

Cultivating a Strong Remote Team Identity to foster innovation

Consciously nurturing a cohesive team identity among remote team members is crucial. Organizations can foster team-building initiatives that go beyond task-oriented objectives. This entails emphasizing shared values, creating a sense of belonging, and promoting a collective vision. Therefore, encouraging the establishment of virtual spaces dedicated to team interaction can help forge stronger bonds. Furthermore it can instill a greater sense of purpose within remote teams.

Fostering Team Flow

Organizations can proactively cultivate an environment that encourages and supports team flow. By providing clear goals, fostering open communication channels, and promoting psychological safety, remote teams can create conditions for team flow. Furthermore, regular check-ins, virtual team workshops, and structured collaborative exercises can help remote teams flow. Indeed, the team will be more likely to feel engaged in a common task and achieve optimal performance.


Innovation knows no boundaries, and it is essential to recognize that while remote collaboration offers numerous advantages, it also presents unique challenges. Indeed, by acknowledging the intricacies of remote teamwork and implementing effective strategies, organizations can unlock the full potential of remote teams and pave the way for ground-breaking innovation. Therefore, in Human Edge we strongly believe in the power of connections, especially for remote teams. This is why we have created Connect Cards, to help teams fostering a sense of shared identity and informal collaborations.

Did you find hard to produce innovation in remote teams? And have you worked on any solution to reduce the gap? Then, share your thoughts in the comment section!


Lin, Y., Frey, C. B., & Wu, L. (2023). Remote collaboration fuses fewer breakthrough ideas. Nature623(7989), 987-991.
Xie, L. (2022). Flow in work teams: The role of emotional regulation, voice, and team mindfulness. Current Psychology, 41(11), 7867–7877.

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