Q&A: Why video calls can be bad for creativity

The use of videoconferencing apps grew dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic and helped many workers stay in touch with each other and their bosses. But there may be a downside to the video revolution.

An electified, exploding light bulb. [ideas / innovation / transformation]
Igor Stevanovic / Getty Images

The popularity of video calls soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as office closures required new ways for workers to connect. But for all their benefits, videoconferencing apps have their downsides, too — and it’s not just Zoom-fatigue after several back-to-back meetings.

A recent study, “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation,” published in the journal Nature found that  creativity took a hit when people work collaboratively via video. That's apparently because videoconferencing restricts a person's focus to the computer screen, effectively filtering out the rest of the physical space people occupy. This narrowing of view also serves to restrict cognitive focus, stifling the creative thoughts that come more naturally as people's eyes wander when talking to others in-person.

Melanie Brucks Melanie Brucks

Melanie Brucks, assistant professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School.

But don't dump the video apps (or cancel remote work) yet. Melanie Brucks, assistant professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School, who authored the report alongside Jonathan Levav, professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, warns against interpreting the results as a reason to avoid videoconferencing. Instead, the study shows that tools such as Zoom are better suited to certain tasks, particularly those that require more intent focus. And for those tasks, the study indicated that video calls might actually be better for idea selection than meeting in person.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of "Computerworld"’s conversation with Brucks about the study.

What limitations did the study reveal in terms of creativity and idea generation when collaborating virtually? "We were initially drawn to this research question because we heard from managers and executives — way before COVID — that they were having trouble with innovation with remote teams.

"I was a little bit sceptical, because I had looked at the prior research on different kinds of communication technologies, and it seemed like Zoom and other videoconferencing technologies solved most of the problems; we can see people's faces, we can hear what they're saying, it's all synchronous. Unlike phones, where you can't see people's faces, or email where it's not synchronous, most of what we do on video mimics 'in-person' quite well.  

"We kept on hearing that people were having problems, though, so we decided to test it: Is it true that it's hard to innovate when we're on Zoom or on videoconferencing calls compared to in-person?

"We looked at two different stages of innovation; the idea-generation stage — coming up with new ideas — and then the idea-evaluation stage, where you decide which ideas are the most creative and have the most promise to build on and to further implement.

"What we found is interesting. First of all, one of the most important implications is not that Zoom is ‘worse.’ A lot of people say that Zoom, and just staring at a screen, is not real in-person communication, that it's just the worst version of everything. That's not true.

"We find that it's uniquely bad for idea generation. People who are interacting virtually generated fewer ideas, and fewer creative ideas, than people who interacted in-person. But when it came to the next stage, the idea evaluation, we found that there's no significant difference between the two conditions. In fact, if anything, virtual groups are a little bit better at evaluating their ideas.

"So it's much more nuanced than people like to say. Certain tasks are better in-person and certain tasks it doesn't seem to matter.

What were some of the reasons for the negative impact on idea generation? "We were thinking about all the ways videoconferencing is so similar to in-person [communication] that we had to step back and think about, ‘What are the main differences that still exist?’

The idea came from my own observations. When I was working on research with collaborators, either in-person or on video, I realized that video calls were much more efficient; it was much more 'on-task' — there was an agenda we stuck with. When we interact in-person, it felt that there were a lot more non-sequiturs and opportunities to explore different avenues. And so we were thinking, why is that? Why might there be this difference in how we interact? And we realized that [one of] the main differencesthat  still exist is a difference in physicality.

"When we're interacting in-person, we have the entire room as our shared environment. And the only way that I can really exit the shared environment would be if I got up and walked out. Otherwise, wherever I look, whatever I do, I'm still in this shared environment with the other person.

"But when you're communicating on video, you only have the screen as your shared environment. And when people blur their backgrounds, you literally just have their face. That's the only thing that you share with that person. We thought about how that could end up compelling people to narrow their visual focus to the screen.

"There’s research that shows visual attention and cognitive tension are very linked. When you're more visually focused, you're more likely to be cognitively focused. When you're filtering out the rest of the world and focusing on the screen, that makes you more ‘focused’ in your idea generation. And it turns out that's bad for creativity. You don't want to be focused, you want to be broad and you want to be exploratory, you want to go down those different avenues and those non-sequiturs."

How significant was the negative effect on creativity between the two modes? "We looked at the number of creative ideas that's generated, and we find that switching to a virtual meeting, on average in the lab studies, reduced the number of creative ideas by about 20%.

Do the findings lend weight to calls in some quarters for employees to return to the office, whether full time or hybrid? "It's a really interesting question, and it's also interesting because it changed through the pandemic. We started working on this project in 2016. Then, the question of course was, ‘We're all in-person, but are there certain tasks that we could move to remote work?’ And that was when I talked to managers and to people in the industry, and they always asked me that question.

"Then, after COVID, the question was, ‘Well, when can we justify in-person work? When can we say it's important to bring people back into the office?’ And I think that, in both cases, the answer is it's not all or nothing. I think that the future of work is hybrid. I think a lot of knowledge workers will have opportunities to be in-person and opportunities to be remote. And I think that it's not 'Do we have to be in-person?' or 'Do we have to be remote?' but what kinds of tasks are we prioritizing for each of these?

"So if you're doing a quarterly meeting where everyone's there, that's when you should focus on being generative. Instead of just giving summaries of what you've done, ...also have the opportunity to come up with new ideas.

"But there are also lots of tasks that are probably are fine when you do them remotely. We’re seeing no differences in social connection. If anything, we're seeing virtual groups are a little bit better when it comes to idea selection. And so this is not some 'We have to be back in the office' conclusion here. It's really a much more nuanced one than that."

For fully remote teams, or where in-person meeting isn't possible or practical, did the study indicate what can be done to at least improve idea generation in a virtual setting?

"We were not able to collect any more data once COVID hit and that was the plan for the next study to run. So I say this without any empirical evidence — I want to have a caveat here that I am speculating — but based on the results that we have, I think turning off the video can help with idea generation, because you're no longer tethered to that screen and you're able to cognitively wander your environment.

"I have anecdotally tested this with my students. Last year, I taught an innovation class completely virtually and when they did the idea generation part in groups, I told them, try turning off the video. They said that it felt very liberating, they felt like all of a sudden they were free of something and it helped them with creativity.

"It still needs to be tested, and there's a lot of things that still need to be tested in this whole field, because we were kind of thrust into remote working in COVID, and the research is still catching up. So we still need to follow up on that.

To look at it from a different angle, could the introduction of more immersive technologies, like virtual or mixed reality, or even larger video screens remove some of these barriers to creative collaboration?

"I've thought about this a lot. Right now, VR technology is so nascent. We're in these avatar states, you can't see people's faces, and a big component of why Zoom is so great is you have such rich data from how people are responding to you.

"But I think that, once VR is capable of mimicking a real-world environment, the negative effect we're observing right now will probably go away.

"What's interesting, and why I think future research needs to follow up on our findings that idea evaluation might be a little bit better on video conferencing, is that once we're able to fully mimic the in-person experience, we might not always want to. I'm hoping future research will look into that. Maybe there's times where it would be more efficient if we stick to some kind of video technology, rather than doing VR in the future. So I’d like to look into that more. I think that would be an interesting direction to go.

"In terms of the size of the screen, we've actually looked at it a little bit. Based on our process, we agree that if the screen is large enough, that your shared environment has really grown and you no longer feel compelled to look at the screen, that should help. But it may be the case that the current market options for the size of the screen might not reach that level. So even if you have a really large monitor, it's a small proportion of your entire environment in a room.

"So we did try to look at this; we ran a virtual study where we had people generate ideas and we captured the size of their screens. And we looked at, 'Is there a relationship between the size of the screen and people's idea generation performance?’ We find there's no significant relationship, but, again, I think it might be because it's still a very narrow part of our environment. And maybe if we could end up having a screen that's an entire wall or something it would be different."

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