More and more people mainly work from home and meet their colleagues primarily through videoconferencing. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this development. But how does virtual collaboration affect team creativity? A new study shows that teams working on a task via video call have fewer creative ideas than teams sitting together in the same room. According to the researchers, the reason for this is that on-screen focus also narrows cognitive focus and thus inhibits creativity. On the other hand, when it comes to choosing the best idea, virtual teams turn out to be as effective as personal teams.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers were sent to work from home indefinitely and face-to-face meetings with colleagues were replaced by videoconferencing. Many companies have made their working-from-home policies more flexible, and research estimates that even after the pandemic is over, around 20 percent of working days in the US will still be spent working from home. But how does this affect teamwork? Can videoconferencing solutions equally replace face-to-face contact?
creativity and decision making
Melanie Brucks of Columbia University in New York and Jonathan Levav of Stanford University addressed the question. In several laboratory and field experiments, they investigated how creative teams are depending on whether they work together virtually or in person. Scientists recruited a total of more than 600 students for laboratory experiments and divided them into teams of two, who were to come up with new possible applications for the product and ultimately choose the best idea. Team members either sat face to face in a room or communicated in two separate rooms via videoconference.
On the one hand, the researchers counted the number of creative ideas for the team, and on the other hand, independent judges assessed how creative the individual ideas were. The jurors did not know under what conditions the proposals were made. Result: ‘The virtual couples generated significantly fewer total ideas and much fewer creative ideas,’ the researchers say. “On the other hand, we found indications that virtual interaction can increase the quality of decisions.” Although personal teams had better ideas in their idea pool, they often did not choose the best idea for the final presentation. As a result, the ideas finally selected were of similar quality for virtual couples and face-to-face.
The videoconference narrows the subject down
To find an explanation for this phenomenon, scientists assessed a number of possible influencing factors. They measured the degree of connection of the subjects with their team partner, analyzed the exchange of words in the conversations, followed the eye movements of the participants and asked after the experiment how much they remembered the room in which they performed the task. It found that perceived devotion and trust for a team mate were similarly high in virtual and personal couples. Interview analyzes revealed minor communication problems during videoconferencing, for example that participants were involuntarily talking at the same time more often and there were fewer speaker changes than in face-to-face conversations. However, using statistical methods, Brucks and Levav were able to show that creative performance was not affected.
They found another distinct factor influencing this: while the eyesight of the participants who sat in person often wandered around the room, the videoconference participants were much more focused on their interlocutor on the screen. Consequently, they were later able to remember fewer details of the room. “Screen focus also results in narrower cognitive focus,” explain the researchers. However, it is important for creativity to be able to let your thoughts wander as much as your gaze does. On the other hand, it may be helpful to focus more closely when deciding an idea.
Combine virtual and personal work
Brucks and Levav confirmed the results in a field study involving nearly 1,500 employees of a telecommunications company in Portugal, Israel, Finland, Hungary and India. In this case, well-established teams of two should come up with new product ideas for their business in person or via video call, and ultimately choose one of the innovations. Here, too, it was found that face-to-face teams developed more creative ideas than virtual teams. As with the laboratory studies, however, the final innovations presented were just as good as the personal teams often did not decide on the best idea.
From the authors’ point of view, their results can help companies make homework and face-to-face work as reasonable as possible. At the same time, however, Brucks and Levav emphasize that many other factors that were not noted in the study should be taken into account. These include, for example, the profitability of face-to-face jobs and the possibility of incorporating talented people who live far away through online work. “To get the best of both worlds, many companies plan to combine face-to-face collaboration with virtual collaboration,” the researchers report. “Our results indicate that in these hybrid constellations it may make sense to prioritize creative brainstorming in face-to-face meetings.”
Source: Melanie Brucks (Columbia University, New York) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038 / s41586-022-04643-y