Thinking Inside the Box: Why Virtual Meetings Generate Fewer Ideas
For creative collaboration, sometimes you can’t beat a face-to-face meeting.
“If your visual field is narrow, then your cognition is likely to be as well,” says Jonathan Levav. | Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez
Even if the pandemic abates enough for a return to normal, all evidence indicates that a substantial share of Americans will continue to work from home, relying on videoconferencing to team up.
Yet while the ease of gathering virtually has made the shift to widespread remote work possible, a new study finds that on-screen meetings have a significant drawback: They hinder creative collaboration.
The study, coauthored by Jonathan Levav of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Melanie Brucks of Columbia Business School, finds that in-person teams generated more ideas than remote teams working on the same problem.
In a laboratory experiment conducted at Stanford, half the teams worked together in person and half did so online. The in-person teams generated 15% to 20% more ideas than their virtual counterparts. In a separate experiment involving almost 1,500 engineers at a multinational corporation, in-person teams came up with more ideas, and those ideas received higher ratings for originality.
The researchers say they’ve identified a reason online meetings generated fewer good ideas: When people focus on the narrow field of vision of a screen, their thinking becomes narrower as well. “If your visual field is narrow, then your cognition is likely to be as well,” Levav says. “For creative idea generation, narrowed focus is a problem.”
In contrast, people who meet in person get creative stimulation by visually wandering around the space they’re in, which makes them more likely to cognitively wander as well. “In a video interaction, you need to fix your gaze at the screen because otherwise you’re projecting to your partner that you’re looking at something else and distracted,” Levav says. But that distraction is actually useful when it comes to sparking ideas. “If you think about disruptive ideas, they come from putting together broad concepts that are seemingly unrelated.”
Levav, a professor of marketing who has studied how environmental cues affect people’s choices, cautions that these findings don’t mean that virtual meetings have no value. His study also found that teams meeting online did as well and possibly better than in-person teams when it came to selecting the best ideas.
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The real lesson, Levav says, is that the costs and benefits of working remotely are more nuanced and less understood than most people realize.
“The shift to working more from home is here,” he says. “But the pandemic happened without giving us a chance to think about how to do remote working right. 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.”
Levav and Brucks, then a PhD student at Stanford GSB, initiated their study well before COVID arrived. They began with a lab experiment in which participants teamed up to generate novel uses for frisbees and bubble wrap, a common task in the academic literature on creativity. The participants were placed in offices that contained the same assortment of objects, from filing cabinets and folders to more offbeat items like a bowl of lemons, a yoga ball box, and a poster with a skeleton on it.
The researchers monitored the participants by video, tracking their eye movements and language as well as the ideas they generated. Overall, the in-person teams generated between 15% and 20% more ideas than those that met over video. The in-person participants also observed more and remembered more about their surroundings, and that increased recall correlated with more creativity.
The researchers then carried out a similar experiment in real life, enlisting 1,490 engineers at a multinational company spread across five countries in Europe and Asia. In contrast to the lab experiment, the engineers had genuine incentives to come up with good ideas because they could potentially evolve into new business ventures.
Once again, the in-person teams generated about 15% more ideas. They were also more likely to jump off in novel directions, generating ideas that were very different from each other rather than being just minor variations on the same theme. “You want to generate ideas that can be structured like a sprawling oak tree, not a tall and narrow cypress,” Levav says. “In the video interactions, the idea structures look more like cypresses.”
Interestingly, Levav and Brucks found that virtual meetings didn’t seem to hinder how well the participants got along. Using semantic analysis of how participants spoke to each other, they found that the virtual and in-person teams showed the same amount of mutual trust and social connection.
As remote work remains a fixture of many people’s lives, Levav says it would be worth exploring how virtual meetings work in other contexts, such as job interviews and larger group collaborations. But for now, he says, “We don’t yet know enough to make strident judgments about the superiority of working remotely versus in person. What our research shows is that there’s subtlety.” In other words, it’s too soon to zoom to conclusions.
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