Direct flights usually make travel more enjoyable, but can they also lead to innovation, especially in a global context? Research shows they can, with important takeaways for managers rebuilding business travel in a world emerging from the pandemic.
In a recent study, Harvard Business School Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury examined how, when, and whether direct flights can trigger an increase in new ideas. In a broad study of flight and patent data, Choudhury and coauthors found that a 10 percent increase in nonstop flights between two locations led to a 1.4 percent increase in new patents between firms in those locations.
“Even in a hybrid world, even in a work-from-anywhere world, we still need to occasionally meet in person with colleagues for social purposes.”
Chowdhury and his colleagues added an additional wrinkle. Meeting face-to-face—facilitated by direct flights—is most important when collaborators are in different time zones or cross cultural distance.
“It seems that if the two locations are in the same time zone and are culturally similar, then Zoom is good enough. It’s nice to meet colleagues on Zoom and have productive conversations with them. But if you work with a colleague who lives in a distant time zone or is culturally different from you, you need to get on a flight and meet that person in person. It’s a big draw,” says Chowdhury.
In a business world emerging from Zoom boxes, this is an important wrinkle to consider. “Business travel is still necessary,” said Choudhury, who wrote the study with Danny Bahar, associate professor at Brown University; Do Yoon Kim, assistant professor at Boston College; and Wesley Ku, assistant professor at INSEAD. “Even in a hybrid world, even in a work-from-anywhere world, we still have to Occasionally meet colleagues in person for social purposes.”
Merge flights and patent data
Choudhury and his colleagues examined flights from every airport in the world — 5,015 in all — between 2005 and 2015. They then matched those flights with global patent data filed by companies when they knew the address of the inventor of each patent, and used cutting-edge empirical methods , to determine causation.
In addition to the 1.4 percent growth in patents, the authors found that new applications cited other patents 3.4 percent more often — evidence of innovation as measured by the US Patent and Trademark Office — when direct flights increased by 10 percent. Firms that benefited most from direct flights tended to be greater innovators overall, with more inventors and greater R&D spending. Many of these companies were also located within 50 miles of innovation centers or in countries that were known as technology leaders.
The researchers also found that the effect of non-stop flights on innovation outcomes was stronger for shorter north-south routes that traverse less longitudinal distance.
Some business trips matter more
Choudhury believes these findings offer significant insight for policymakers, especially in innovation hubs, as they consider adding direct flights to their airports. It is also useful for corporate leaders who appreciate the importance of business travel.
Choudhury’s work is particularly prescient in a post-pandemic world. His broader scholarship focuses on the geography of work, particularly how location affects productivity and innovation. The continued rise of remote work, spurred by COVID-19, calls into question the importance of face-to-face interaction. These days, he’s often asked if personal business trips are worth it.
“We show that business travel matters for innovation, but it only matters if the locations of two firms are either culturally or temporally distant from each other.”
His research suggests an answer: Yes, with an important caveat.
“We show that business travel matters for innovation, but it only matters if the locations of two firms are either culturally or temporally distant from each other,” he says—that is, if the two firms have different cultural norms or not. overlapping work hours defined as 1.5 hours or less.
For example, colleagues who speak different languages and have unique cultural norms about meeting styles would benefit from face-to-face meetings, while people who speak the same language and organize meetings in a similar way will not realize the same benefit.
Choudhury hopes business leaders will take the research into account when fine-tuning post-pandemic work policies. Because of the large sample size of flights used in this article, he believes the findings can be generalized to all business leaders.
The Power of Zoom
However, Chowdhury was surprised that direct flights are not particularly useful when people are in the same time zone.
“It just goes to show you the power of Zoom and similar communication technologies. The advent of these technologies has really narrowed the gap,” he says.
Ultimately, Choudhury hopes leaders realize that non-stop flights can break down temporal barriers and help spread knowledge — either through colleagues working in person or virtually but on the same schedule — especially as work-from-home policies grow. at home and the dispersal of the global workforce.
“If you live in San Francisco and your colleague lives in Vancouver, you both speak excellent English, you both understand the same cultural norms, Zoom works great. If you’re meeting a colleague who lives in Beijing or South Korea, and you’re culturally and temporally distant, those face-to-face meetings still have value,” Choudhury says.
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