Virtual meetings can crush creativity, new study finds


Are Zoom and other forms of video interaction crushing the creative process that led to such feats? Yes, according to a new study released Wednesday that found it’s easier to come up with creative ideas in person.

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

Brucks said she had previously believed that virtual interaction mimicked an in-person experience “quite well” and assumed opponents of videoconferencing were Luddites. She spent four years exploring whether it really had an impact on people’s ability to generate innovative ideas.

Generate ideas

She recruited 602 people, including university students and staff, and divided them into pairs to work on tasks in person or virtually. The tasks involved finding new uses for everyday items, like bubble wrap and a Frisbee, and each piece had the same five items.

“When we innovate, we have to deviate from existing solutions and come up with new ideas by drawing heavily on our knowledge. Finding alternative ways to use known objects requires the same psychological process,” she explained.

Each pair’s performance was determined by the number of ideas they came up with and the novelty and value of their ideas as ranked by the student judges. (For example: a creative use for a Frisbee: knocking fruit off a tree, conveying a message. Less creative: a plate or a picnic hat.)

The researchers also used eye-tracking software, which found that virtual participants spent more time looking directly at their partner, instead of looking around the room. Additionally, she said pairs who participated in videoconferences remembered less of their surroundings, which were identical to those who met in person.

“This visual focus on the screen shrinks cognition. In other words, people are more focused when interacting on video, which interferes with the broad and expansive idea generation process,” Brucks said.

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

“Objects in the room can elicit new associations more easily than trying to generate them all internally,” said Olson, who was not involved in the research. “The authors find that interaction via a computer screen could unintentionally distract attention in a way that reduces the generation of these new ideas.”

Real world discoveries

The results were replicated in a similar but larger experiment outside the lab. Some 1,490 engineers working in five different countries (in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia) for a telecommunications infrastructure company were randomly matched, either face-to-face or via video call. They were asked to create product ideas and choose one to submit as a new product for the company.

Bruck said the results were similar, although the exercise was more complex than lab testing, the engineers knew each other beforehand, and they were regular users of videoconferencing software.

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“The field study shows that the negative effects of video conferencing on idea generation are not limited to simplistic tasks and can also manifest themselves in more complicated, high-tech brainstorming sessions,” he said. she declared.

“The fact that we replicate the negative effect of videoconferencing on idea generation in our field environment suggests that the negative effect of videoconferencing is unlikely to diminish as people become more familiar with software such as than Zoom or gain more experience generating ideas and collaborating with their teams.”

But there were some important caveats. The study revealed that videoconferencing does not hinder any collaborative work. Although it was easier to generate ideas in person, it didn’t make a difference in the ability to critically evaluate creative ideas, like selecting the best idea from the set, Bruck said.

Creativity and zoom are not incompatible

Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of “On Becoming 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 videoconferencing are incompatible.

Whether or not we are creative during 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 to handle conflict are not the same thing – a task can be best done alone, outside of any sort of meeting.

“Maybe a lot of us make friends faster in person than on Zoom., and creativity flourishes when we are relaxed. But when zooming in from home, people are probably more relaxed than when they’re taking part in an experiment,” she added.

Olson and Langer both suggested that there is a practical solution to the conundrum 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 as many ideas as they do during individual in- sessions?

Olson said managers shouldn’t be rushing to get people back into the office or adding more face-to-face meetings as a result of this research, even though it might makes sense to hold in-person brainstorming sessions.

“Although the effects appear to be robust, this is a single study and the effects are somewhat small, amounting to a difference of one or two ideas between the groups. The magnitude of the impact depends on the business: it can range from an insignificant difference to a massive cumulative effect,” Olson said.

“I wouldn’t want to see a company doubling down on in-person meetings in hopes of improving innovation, if it also means doubling the commute time, which makes employees less happy and possibly less creative.”

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