How video conferencing can stifle creative idea generation
As the world grapples with the new face of remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic researchers are only now catching up to the implications of virtual communication on tasks that in the past would have been conducted face-to-face. A new study published in the journal Nature has homed in on how videoconferencing technologies affect the quality of creative collaborations and the results indicate virtual tools may not be as effective in generating new and unique ideas as in-person interactions.
Recent research has found the vast majority of Americans are not interested in returning to the pre-pandemic world of Monday-to-Friday office work. The sharp shift to working from home in 2020 highlighted just how flexible many jobs are, and a Harvard Business Review poll found more than half of those surveyed wouldn’t want to spend more than two days a week in the office moving into the future.
So, if the future of work is to be some kind of office/home hybrid situation it is crucial to know what kinds of work should be done in-person and what can be efficiently achieved remotely.
The new research focused on creative idea generation – that classic form of brainstorming where are group of people work together to come up with novel ideas. The first part of the research involved pairing 602 volunteers and asking them to come up with unique uses for everyday objects such as bubble wrap.
Half the pairs were split up in separate rooms and brainstormed over a videoconferencing device, while the other half of the cohort worked together in the same room. Looking at the sheer number of ideas generated, those virtual pairs came up with around 14 percent fewer ideas than their in-person counterparts.
The creativity of the ideas generated was then evaluated by a small panel of student judges who rated each idea on a scale of one to seven – one being not at all innovative or creative and seven being very innovative or creative. The ideas generated by the in-person teams were consistently rated as significantly more creative and novel compared to the ideas generated by the virtual teams.
Interestingly, the virtual pairs did perform as well as the in-person pairs on one particular task: choosing the top idea generated in the brainstorming sessions. The researchers hypothesize these divergent results stem from the different cognitive processes required for creative ideating compared to analytical selection.
The clue to why virtual interactions led to decreases in creativity came when the researchers looked at eye-tracking data gathered during the experiments. Prior studies have demonstrated people are more creative when they are unfocused. Staring off into space, pacing around a room, or even playing with an innocuous object are all behaviors that can spark creative thought.
However, the eye-tracking data revealed those pairs using videoconferencing were staring directly at each other twice as much as those in-person pairs. This kind of intense cognitive focus on one’s partner is thought to limit their creative processes. Although, when the task switched to choosing the best idea the virtual pair performed well because that process requires more cognitive focus and analytical reasoning.
“I don’t have evidence for this yet, but based on my theory I always suggest turning off the camera during idea generation, so you can walk around, you can look around,” said Melanie Brucks, from Columbia Business School and lead author on the new study.
The second part of the research involved a larger field experiment encompassing nearly 1,500 subjects around the world. The participants were all engineers from a telecommunications company and they were tasked with creating new product ideas for the company.
Again the pairs were split between in-person interactions and virtual communications. The results showed the in-person pairs consistently came up with a greater volume of new ideas compared to the videoconferencing pairs. But interestingly, the quality of the final idea selected by each pair did not ultimately differ between remote and in-person groups.
“The field study shows that the negative effects of videoconferencing on idea generation is not limited to simplistic tasks and can play out in more complicated and high-tech brainstorming sessions as well," Brucks said recently in an interview with CNN. "The fact that we replicate the negative effect of videoconferencing on idea generation in our field setting suggests that the negative effect of videoconferencing will likely not weaken as people become more familiar with software such as Zoom or get more experience generating ideas and working together with their teams."
This new research is part of a growing field of study investigating the pros and cons of our increasing reliance on virtual work environments. Last year a team from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated how turning video off during a cognitively heavy task can improve the collective intelligence of a group, and a milestone Stanford University study effectively catalogued the mechanisms underpinning Zoom Fatigue, the unique phenomenon whereby a long video meeting can be more exhausting than the same duration of meeting in person.
The new study was published in the journal Nature.