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.