Maybe we should meet IRL: Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation

A new study by Brucks and Levav published in Nature examined the effects of meeting online versus in person in relation to creative idea generation. They did both a lab and a field experiment.

In the laboratory experiment, we randomly assigned half of the pairs to work together in person and the other half to work together in separate, identical rooms using videoconferencing. The pairs in the virtual condition interacted with a real-time video of their partner’s face displayed on a 15-inch retina-display screen with no self-view. The image was taken during the first batch of data collection in the laboratory. Consent was obtained to use these images for publication.

The company recruited 1,490 engineers to participate in an ideation workshop and randomly assigned the engineers into pairs collaborating either face-to-face or over videoconference. The pairs generated product ideas for an hour and then selected and developed one idea to submit as a future product innovation for the company.

What are the results?

We show that virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation—we find that videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus, but we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective when it comes to idea selection.

This means that virtual communication can still play an important role in the process, but you should consider when to do what.

Abstract of the study:

COVID-19 accelerated a decade-long shift to remote work by normalizing working from home on a large scale. Indeed, 75% of US employees in a 2021 survey reported a personal preference for working remotely at least one day per week1, and studies estimate that 20% of US workdays will take place at home after the pandemic ends2. Here we examine how this shift away from in-person interaction affects innovation, which relies on collaborative idea generation as the foundation of commercial and scientific progress3. In a laboratory study and a field experiment across five countries (in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia), we show that videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas. By contrast, when it comes to selecting which idea to pursue, we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective (and preliminary evidence that they may be more effective) than in-person groups. Departing from previous theories that focus on how oral and written technologies limit the synchronicity and extent of information exchanged4,5,6, we find that our effects are driven by differences in the physical nature of videoconferencing and in-person interactions. Specifically, using eye-gaze and recall measures, as well as latent semantic analysis, we demonstrate that videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus. Our results suggest that virtual interaction comes with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation.

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