You get more ideas from a face-to-face meeting

| April 29, 2022

Video calls tend to reduce the production of creative ideas, compared to in-person meetings, according a study published in Nature. The findings suggest that virtual interactions may have a cognitive cost when creating ideas collaboratively.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of employees were required to work from home indefinitely and collaborate virtually using videoconferencing technologies.

Studies estimate that 20% of US workdays will take place at home after the pandemic ends, with leading firms across various sectors — including Google, Microsoft, JPMorgan and Amazon — increasing the flexibility of their work-from-home policies. However, the effects of this shift away from in-person interaction, and how these could affect innovation, remain elusive.

To investigate how using video calls may affect the generation of collaborative ideas, Melanie Brucks and Jonathan Levav recruited 1,490 people across five country sites of a telecommunications infrastructure company in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

The participants were randomly paired, either face-to-face or via video call, and asked to create product ideas and choose one to submit as a future product innovation for the company. The authors found that the face-to-face pairs produced more ideas, and more creative ideas, compared to the virtual pairs.

However, when selecting which idea to pursue, video call pairs were no less effective. These results confirm laboratory studies using eye-tracking data, where the authors found that virtual partners spend more time looking directly at their partner, as opposed to gazing around the room.

The authors suggest that video calls focus communication on a screen, narrowing cognitive focus and reducing creative idea generation. However, as critically evaluating creative ideas uses a different cognitive process to idea generation, it is not affected by the narrower cognitive focus.

The findings suggest that creative work may benefit from in-person meetings, whereas other types of collaboration may not be affected.

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