Zoom to Decide, Not to Create

August 2022

We’re in year three of the pandemic, and your staff has likely had more virtual meetings than they knew was possible. Is your videoconferencing productive? Are the ideas flowing when you meet online? Sorry, but probably not.
In two recent studies, researchers concluded that virtual meetings lead to less creative output than meeting face to face. Creativity and the volume of ideas generated tend to wane when teams work remotely to discuss ideas. Why is that?

Cognitive Wandering Is Good
Before the pandemic began, Jonathan Levav of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Melanie Brucks of Columbia Business School began experiments on workplace collaboration to compare the output of teams working online with those working in person. Specifically, the researchers ran two experiments: one in the laboratory and one in real life.
In the lab, two groups—one working face to face and the other working via videoconferencing—were tasked to create novel uses for Frisbees and Bubble Wrap. The researchers monitored the participants by video, tracking their ideas as well as their eye movements and language. Overall, the in-person teams generated between 15% and 20% more ideas than the teams that met by video.
A separate experiment—enlisting 1,490 engineers at a multinational company spread across five countries in Europe and Asia and published in “Nature” (“Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation”)—reached the same conclusion: The in-person teams came up with about 15% more ideas. The in-person teams also received higher ratings for the originality of their proposals.
Levav and Brooks concluded that in-person collaboration stimulates creativity because participants can “wander around the space they’re in” and, thus, they are more likely to “cognitively wander”—to chime into group discussions and generate more crosstalk. That spontaneity produces ideas, says “Insights by Stanford Business” about the experiments.
“When people focus on the narrow field of vision of a screen, their thinking becomes narrower as well,” the article says.
In other words, GoTo Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other videoconferencing tools tend to glue people—and their minds—in place, causing them to hyper focus on others in a rather abnormal way.

The Managerial Challenge
Does this research mean you should abandon all videoconferencing tools? No. Virtual meetings were still found to have value.
Levav and Brooks found that teams working virtually ended up being more selective about which ideas to pursue. “A virtual setting made people more effective at decision making,” says “The Hill.”
Thus, the costs and benefits of working remotely are nuanced and not well understood.
“The pandemic happened without giving us a chance to think about how to do remote working right,” Levav says. “If we’re going to maintain this transition, we need to be deliberate about how we manage the process. That’s going to be the managerial challenge of the next several years.”

Training Is Key
Other studies have found both positive and negative aspects to videoconferencing.
For example, in 2020 Anastasia Kuzminykh of the University of Waterloo and Sean Rintel of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, U.K., found participants less motivated to engage behaviorally and cognitively in remote meetings compared to meeting in person.
In 2021, Hancheng Cao of Stanford and others found that multitasking, common in videoconference meetings, has both positive and negative implications for productivity.
In their review of virtual meeting research, Katherine Karl, Joy Peluchette and Navid Aghakhani concluded that organizations must train their employees on how to use videoconferencing tools. This includes the basics, such as “standard protocols about the use of the microphone (e.g., mic off when not speaking) and proper camera/screen positioning.”
“Such training,” the researchers say, “should not only include the key features of the platforms used for virtual meetings, such as screen sharing and break out rooms, but [also] new features of videoconferencing platforms or apps [that cancel out background noise and silence notifications during sessions].”
Stanford’s Levav says it would be worth exploring how virtual meetings work in other contexts, such as job interviews. “We don’t yet know enough to make strident judgments about the superiority of working remotely versus in person,” he says.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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