Warning: Telework could be harmful to your creativity!

Scientific study shows people generate fewer ideas when brainstorming on a video call rather than in person.

Does Teams tank your talent? Does Zoom zap your zen? Webex wipe out your wow?

Judging by how fervently knowledge workers across the economy have embraced telework, and the astonishing amount of work that’s getting done by tele-employees, apparently the popular online collaboration platforms fulfill a real need.

But now academia is descending on the telework phenomenon, and finding it wanting.

To wit: a 22-page paper published in Nature by two professors from, oddly, the marketing division of Columbia University’s business school.

“We show that virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation,” Melanie Brucks and Jonathan Levav write. “We find that videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups.”

Why? The authors cite “narrowed visual focus.” Squinting at a screen rather than tilting your chair back and gazing at the ceiling.

The study took place using 602 people recruited for idea-generating in two highly controlled situations. Then, to see how projectable the results were, the researchers replicated the work using 1,490 people in Portugal, Israel, Finland, Hungary and India. What they had in common is working for a large telecom infrastructure company.

Its purpose was to “examine how this shift away from in-person interaction affects innovation, which relies on collaborative idea generation as the foundation of commercial and scientific progress.”

The methodology consisted of online and in-person meetings, all timed, in which participants’ head and eye movements were tracked with cameras. Participants were engineers, collaborating in pairs, on the pretext of coming up with new product ideas. Researchers fed the subjects’ behaviors and speech into regression analysis equations. The online part of the experiments used Webex. In-person took place in a small conference room in which the researchers placed a poster depicting a skeleton, a large house plant, a bowl of lemons, blue dishes and yoga ball boxes.

One takeaway: if you do work from home a lot, reconsider your home office layout. Try decorating your workspace with odd or personal items which help you think. One of our colleagues places her table and computer within sight of pictures, tapestries and shelves full of trinkets.

The authors state that lowered idea generation or creativity stems from the fact that people online are looking at a screen instead of gazing around a room. The experiments were detailed and complex, and I’m probably over-simplifying. Elaborate and quantified to perhaps a slightly absurd degree, the paper nonetheless makes a good stab at trying to quantify what perhaps many people feel intuitively.

Right up front, the authors explain, “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.”

Now, there’s lots of stuff like this in the report: “…virtual pairs spent significantly more time looking directly at their partner (Mvirtual = 91.4 s, s.d. = 58.3, Min-person = 51.7 s, s.d. = 52.2, linear mixed-effect regression, n = 270 participants, b = 39.70, s.e. = 6.83, t139 = 5.81, P < 0.001, Cohen’s d = 0.71, 95% CI = 0.47–0.96), spent significantly less time looking at the surrounding room (Mvirtual = 32.4 s, s.d. = 34.8, Min-person = 61.0 s, s.d. = 43.1, linear mixed-effect regression, n = 270 participants…”

Calculations are summarized in a nice chart, though. For example, the Indian group generated 7.65 ideas on video, and 8.75 in person, with more of them dubbed creative. The Hungarian team generated 6.8 ideas on video, 8.15 in person.

What this all adds up to is this: “We show that, even if video interaction could communicate the
same information, there remains an inherent and overlooked physical difference in communicating through video that is not psychologically benign: in-person teams operate in a fully shared physical space, whereas virtual teams inhabit a virtual space that is bounded by the screen in front of each member.”

That phrase, “not psychologically benign,” caught my eye. The everybody-back-to-the-office crowd could seize on that one. Too much video conference plays with your head.

American University professor Bob Tobias, who alerted me to the study, noted that the experiments involved teams of peers, and not supervisor-led meetings. Tobias thinks most supervisors could use some training for how to conduct meetings that evoke everyone’s best ideas.

If you buy the chief finding, that the narrow physical vision of online meetings slightly depresses creative idea generation, does that mean everyone has to return to work 9-5, Monday-Friday?

Of course not. Lots of meetings are merely administrative in purpose. Setting project schedules, reporting on progress, informing people of new policies or procedures, even planning other meetings. People who want to do creative brainstorming in person can get together among themselves. With liberal telework, why go to a conference room in a dreary building? Head for a park where you can have a really wide range of view.

Zoom, Webex and the other platforms have changed work. In the past couple of years their purveyors have steadily improved them, greatly extending what’s possible with telework. Anyway, change is a constant. That’s life. I remember when a newsroom I worked in finally retired the typewriters and got word processing. At first, nobody could stand the quiet.

Just the other day I asked an accomplished federal scientist, now leading a prestigious  supercomputer program, whether he still has time to do science. His plaintive reply?  “Mostly I go to meetings.”

Who needs to traipse to the office for that?

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Daisy Thornton

The world record for longest rappel was set on Mount Thor on July 23, 2006. Mount Thor has the world’s longest vertical drop at 4,101 feet.

Source: Atlas Obscura


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