Just How Much Do Virtual Meetings Impact Creativity?
Zoom, the subject of our disdain but occasional appreciation, may share a tumultuous relationship with individual creativity. According to new research, workers end up being less creative while brainstorming as a group in virtual Zoom meetings.
Published in Nature journal on Wednesday, the researchers mapped how the abstract process of collective creative thinking has played out in the workplace — not split between the home and the office. The findings defy the binary of good and bad; virtual communication doesn’t fit into either. Arguably, virtual meetings are optimal for certain tasks and contexts; and not as helpful for others. The findings pertain to group creativity and cannot be interpreted as the gospel truth about individual creativity in itself.
To show this, Melanie S. Brucks from Columbia University and Jonathan Levav from Standford University conducted a lab study coupled with a field experiment. The sample size was relatively small, but still indicative of some trends coming out of hybrid working.
The first layer of the experiment involved more than 600 university students; they were paired off and asked to think of creative strategies to market everyday items like frisbee or bubble wrap. The pairs who met in person were able to put together 14% more creative ideas as compared to those discussing virtually The second layer was a larger experiment, where researchers looked at nearly 1,500 employees working at a telecommunications company across India, Israel, Hungary, Portugal, and Finland; clubbing them in pairs either in person or via Zoom. They were then asked to come up with as many creative ideas as they could. The results were similar in nature; people thinking together in person came up with more ideas. The creativity in both cases was judged on two metrics: how many ideas people came up with, and the extent of their novelty.
The researchers ascribe this trend to cognitive attention. “In the virtual condition people are looking significantly more at their partner — almost double — at the expense of their broader environment,” said Brucks, the study’s co-author. Moreover, “videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus,” according to the study. People who were brainstorming on video call even remembered less of their surroundings; presumably more occupied by their own appearance or of the other person.
This seems instinctive: people in a physical space can seek creativity or inspiration based on their environment; people can walk around, and speak to more people. There is more freedom to branch out and pursue tangents — as opposed to a setting where the focus is purely on the screen and the person within it.
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“Serendipity does not happen over Zoom,” said Ana Valenzuela, a professor of marketing at the Baruch College Zicklin School of Business in New York City, who was not part of the study. The screen could very unintentionally shift our attention — reducing creative ideas shared in the process.
But while idea generation was not as effective in these virtual conversations, video calls were found to be equally effective for actually selecting the best idea. That is, anything that needed “cognitive focus and analytical reasoning” did not quite suffer in the interaction between square boxes. If anything, that kind of focus that virtual meetings require may in fact help pick the best idea. The takeaway then seems to be that brainstorming sessions should be a mainstay of the physical office.
But there are some things of consideration here. How do you measure creativity? Irrespective of the platform, “whether or not we’re creative while over Zoom may depend on how creative we are in the first place and the task at hand,” said Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who wasn’t involved in the research. Langer is right; someone good at writing may not be best at pitching in front of a group of people.
She added: “Perhaps many of us make friends faster in person than over Zoom, and creativity flourishes when we’re relaxed. But when Zooming from home, people are probably more relaxed than when in an experiment.” The “experiment”-like setting in itself makes it hard to measure creativity.
And how do you account for the variations in the workforce — being inclusive of neurodivergence, disabilities, genders? Arguably, neurodivergent people have preferred the remote setting as a more inclusive way of work. It is ignorant at best, and discriminatory at worst, to assume an induced lack of creativity. Even commute and challenges of accessibility may hinder performance, motivation, and creativity among people.
The compatibility between creativity and virtual calls then cannot be confined to one category. Collaboration is indeed the source of every major achievement, every innovation, every hit song — but the degree and effect of each collaboration cannot be taken as the absolute truth. Generalizations have always been exclusionary, and making some in a work context can prove to be detrimental.
Creativity and Zoom can still share a symbiotic relationship — just as long as employers retain the empathy to prioritize inclusivity over convenience. When in doubt, always circle back to important decisions.