Virtual meetings make creative problem-solving harder

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People come up with fewer creative solutions to a problem when they discuss ideas through a virtual meeting rather than face-to-face



Mind



27 April 2022

virtual meeting

A virtual meeting – new research suggests we are less creative in online meetings than in face-to-face discussions

Jacob Lund/Alamy Stock Photo

Thinking up creative solutions to problems is easier during face-to-face meetings than on a video call, because when we are online we literally and metaphorically narrow our field of view, researchers claim.

Melanie Brucks at Columbia University, New York, and Jonathan Levav at Stanford University in California were told by companies that they were finding it harder to innovate virtually.

“I was kind of suspicious,” Brucks says. Rather than finding it more difficult to come up with ideas, she thought employees were probably just reluctant to adopt new technologies.

To test whether that hunch was correct, or businesses reporting a downswing in idea generation was real, Brucks and Levav recruited 602 people to take part in a laboratory study. Participants were put into pairs and asked to come up with creative ideas for a product in 5 minutes, then to pick their best suggestion in a further minute.

Half the pairs met in person, while half used video conferencing software to interact, with the experiment conducted in two batches.

The researchers then evaluated the number of ideas generated and the quality of the best suggestion.

Those meeting virtually produced 14.74 ideas on average, compared with 16.77 ideas generated by in-person pairs. The ideas generated in virtual meetings were also deemed less creative. However, virtual pairs had a better ability to evaluate the relative qualities of their best idea compared with those meeting in real life. The experiment was also repeated with 1490 engineers at a telecommunications infrastructure company, with similar results.

What may seem like contradictory results can be explained by another finding, reckons Brucks. “We reflected back on our own experiences and realised things felt much more efficient when interacting virtually,” she says.

In the second batch of laboratory data, the gaze of 151 pairs was monitored. Those on virtual calls spent 91.4 seconds looking directly at their partner, compared with 51.7 seconds for those meeting in-person. It appears people make a more focused connection with others on virtual calls, but get less inspiration from their surroundings.

“The study is interesting and I agree with the results – but the future is not everybody working 100 per cent remotely,” says Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester, UK. Instead, he says that the future of work is a hybrid one in which ideas are generated in-person, before being worked on remotely.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04643-y

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