Virtual meetings can crush creativity, new study finds

Virtual meetings can crush creativity, new study finds

The collaboration is behind some of humanity’s greatest achievements – the Beatles’ greatest hits, A Man on the Moon, the Smartphone.

Do Zoom and other forms of video interaction crush the creative process that has led to such exploits? Yes, it’s easier to come up with creative ideas in person, according to new research published Wednesday.

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This is an answer that many employers have been looking for over the years as working from home became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic. The US National Bureau of Economic Research said last year that 20% of the workday would be from home when the pandemic ended, compared to only 5% earlier.

“We initially started the project (in 2016) because we heard from managers and executives that innovation was one of the biggest challenges with video interactions. And I admit that I was initially skeptical,” said at Columbia Business School Melanie Brooks, assistant professor of business marketing and author of the study published in the scientific journal Nature.

Brooks said he previously believed virtual conversations mimicked a personal experience “very well” and believed that the opponents of video conferencing were Luddites. He spent four years finding out whether it really had any effect on people’s ability to generate innovative ideas.

generate ideas

She recruited 602 people, including college students and staff, and divided them into pairs to work on tasks, either individually or virtually. Works included new uses for everyday things like bubble wrap and Frisbee, and each room had the same five items.

“When we innovate, we have to build on existing solutions and come up with new ideas, drawing largely on our knowledge. The same psychological process for creating alternative ways of using familiar objects require,” he explained.

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The performance of each pair was determined by how many ideas they presented and the novelty and value of their ideas as assessed by student judges. (For example: A creative use for a Frisbee: Take fruit from a tree, convey a message. Less creative: a plate or picnic hat.)

Researchers also used eye-tracking software, which found that virtual participants spent more time looking directly at their partner than looking around the room. In addition, she said peers who were videoconferencing remembered less about the environment, which was similar to those who were meeting in person.

“This visual focus on the screen restricts cognition. In other words, people are more focused when interacting on video, which undermines the broad and detailed process of generating ideas,” said Brux.

Jay Olson, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University in Canada who studies methods for measuring creativity, said people often look to their environment to help them generate ideas.

“Objects in a room can generate new associations more easily than trying to generate them all internally,” Olson said. “The authors found that interacting through a computer screen may inadvertently shift attention in a way that reduces the generation of these new ideas.”

real world exploration

The findings were replicated outside the laboratory in a similar but larger experiment. About 1,490 engineers working in five different countries (in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia) for a telecommunications infrastructure company were randomly added, either in person or via video call. They were invited to come up with product ideas and choose one to present as a new product for the company.

Brooke said the findings were similar, although the exercise was more complex than the lab test, with the engineers already knowing each other and regular users of video conferencing software.

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“Field studies show that the negative effects of video conferencing on idea generation are not limited to simple tasks and can occur in more complex, high-tech brainstorming sessions,” she said.

“The fact that we replicate the negative impact of video conferencing on idea generation in our field environment suggests that the negative impact of video conferencing is unlikely to weaken as people become more familiar with software such as Zoom. Or gain more experience generating ideas and working together. with their teams. ,

But there were some important caveats. The study found that video conferencing did not prevent all collaborative work. Brooke said, while idea creation was easier on an individual, it didn’t affect the ability to critically evaluate creative ideas, such as picking the best idea from a pool.

Creativity and Zoom are not incompatible

Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of “On Being an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity,” said the new research was an important first step. However, she said it was a mistake to conclude that creativity and video conferencing are incompatible.

Whether or not we’re creative on Zoom may depend on how creative we are in the first place and the task at hand, said Langer, who was not involved in the research. Generating uses for a Frisbee and generating new ways of dealing with conflicts are not the same thing – outside of any type of meeting, a task can be done alone.

“Perhaps many of us make friends more quickly than Zoom, and creativity thrives when we relax.

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Olson and Langer suggest that there is a practical solution to the puzzle that could be tested in future research: if people were asked to spend more time looking around the room during their virtual sessions, would they generate the same number of views during virtual sessions? person session?

Olson said managers shouldn’t rush to bring people back into the office or add face-to-face meetings as a result of this research, although it makes sense to hold brainstorming sessions in person.

“While the effects seem strong, this is a one-time study and the effects are somewhat small, due to differences of one or two views between groups. The effect depends on the company: it ranges from minor differences to massively mixed effects. Maybe,” Olson said.

“I don’t want to see a company doubling face-to-face meetings in hopes of improving its innovation, if it also means doubling the travel time resulting in less happy — and perhaps less creative” employees.

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About the author: Sarah Gracie

"Proud social media buff. Unapologetic web scholar. Internet guru. Lifelong music junkie. Travel specialist."

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