During the Covid pandemic, technologies like Zoom, Teams or Skype enabled millions of employees to hold remote meetings. This virtual collaboration could well continue, recent polls showing that in the United States for example, 20% of working days will take place at home after the end of the pandemic, underlines the study published in the journal Nature.
Their authors, marketing experts for the American universities of Columbia and Stanford, wanted to know the effects of this abandonment of face-to-face interactions on innovation, in other words the ability to generate new ideas during an exchange (the “brainstorming “).
They conducted initial laboratory tests, with 602 randomly paired volunteer students. The pairs were either face-to-face in the same room or separated and talking to each other via video call. Each team had 5 minutes to find creative uses for products (a frisbee and bubble wrap). Then had to select his most creative idea.
The experience was replicated in companies with 1,490 engineers in Finland, Hungary, Portugal, India and Israel: during dedicated workshops within their premises, the groups were invited to propose innovative products for their companies.
The result: in-person interactions produced about 15% more ideas than virtual interactions, and 13% more creative ideas. Good news, however, for Zoom, Skype and Teams: when teams had to choose their best idea, virtual exchanges proved to be just as fruitful as face-to-face, and sometimes even more so. The researchers concluded that only creativity is inhibited by video calls. Other skills don’t seem to be affected.
Too much screen focus
But why ? Previous research has established a neurological link between vision and focus, and found that, paradoxically, “people are more creative when they’re less focused,” says Melanie Brucks, a Columbia marketing professor who co-authored the study, in a video presentation of his work.
To test it, she equipped her “guinea pigs” with an eye tracking device. And thus was able to verify that the virtual partners spent almost twice as much time looking at each other as their face-to-face counterparts.
Video calls focused attention on a limited space, the screen, thereby limiting the cognitive process of creation. While face-to-face, people shared a whole environment, “more conducive to the ramification of thoughts generating new ideas” develop the authors. Who suggest not eliminating virtual collaborations, which have their advantages, but reserving them for certain specific tasks, favoring presence in the office for brainstorming.