How video conferencing can stifle the generation of creative ideas


As the world struggles with a new face of remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are only now catching up with the implications of virtual communication for tasks that were previously performed face-to-face. A new study is published in the journal Nature talked about how video conferencing technology affects the quality of creative collaboration, and the results show that virtual tools may not be as effective in creating new and unique ideas as personal interaction.

Recent studies have found the vast majority of Americans are not interested in returning to the pandemic world of office work Monday through Friday. The a sharp transition to work from home in 2020 stressed how flexible many jobs are, and a Harvard Business Review Survey found that more than half of respondents would not want to spend more than two days a week in the office moving into the future.

Therefore, if the future of work should be some hybrid office / home situation, it is very important to know what types of work should be performed in person and what can be effectively achieved remotely.

The new study focused on generating creative ideas – a classic form of brainstorming where a group of people work together to come up with new ideas. The first part of the study involved a combination of 602 volunteers and asked them to come up with a unique use for everyday items such as bubble wrap.

Half of the couples were separated into separate rooms and brainstormed using a video conferencing device, while the other half of the cohort worked together in one room. Looking at the large number of ideas generated, these virtual couples came up with about 14 percent fewer ideas than their personal counterparts.

Then the creativity of the created ideas was evaluated by a small group of student judges, who evaluated each idea on a scale from one to seven: one of them is not innovative or creative, and seven – very innovative or creative. Ideas created by personal teams were constantly evaluated as much more creative and new compared to ideas created by virtual teams.

Interestingly, virtual couples did just as well as personal couples, on one specific task: choosing the best idea generated during the brainstorming. Researchers believe that these different outcomes stem from the different cognitive processes required to generate creative ideas compared to analytical selection.

A clue as to why virtual interaction led to a decline in creativity came when researchers looked at eye-tracking data collected during experiments. Previous research has shown that people are more creative when not focused. Looking into space, walking around the room or even playing with a harmless object – all this can evoke creative thoughts.

However, eye-tracking data showed that these couples who enjoyed video conferencing looked at each other twice as often as these couples in person. It is believed that such an intense cognitive focus on the partner limits their creative processes. Although, when the task shifted to choosing the best idea, the virtual pair worked well because the process required more cognitive focus and analytical reasoning.

“I don’t have evidence of that yet, but based on my theory, I always suggest turning off the camera while generating ideas so you can walk around, you can look around,” Said Melanie Brooksfrom Columbia Business School and lead author of a new study.

The second part of the study included a larger field experiment involving nearly 1,500 subjects worldwide. All participants were engineers from the telecommunications company, and they were tasked with creating new ideas for the company.

Again couples were divided between personal interactions and virtual communication. The results showed that personal couples are constantly coming up with more new ideas compared to video conferencing couples. But interestingly, the quality of the final idea chosen by each pair ultimately did not differ between remote and personal groups.

“Field research shows that the negative impact of video conferencing on the generation of ideas is not limited to simplified tasks and can be seen in more complex and high-tech brainstorming sessions,” Brooks said recently in CNN interview. “The fact that we reiterate the negative impact of video conferencing on generating ideas in our field environment suggests that the negative impact of video conferencing is unlikely to diminish if people become more familiar with software like Zoom, or get more experience generating ideas and working with your team. ”

This new study is part of a growing field of research that explores the pros and cons of our growing dependence on virtual work environments. Last year the team was from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated how to disable video during a cognitively difficult task can improve the group’s collective intelligence, and an important study by Stanford University effectively cataloged the mechanisms underlying Zoom fatigue, a unique phenomenon that can make a long video meeting more tedious than the same length of a personal meeting.

A new study was published in the journal Nature.

How video conferencing can stifle the generation of creative ideas

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