Remote work harms the generation of creative ideas, according to a new study | Technology
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Telecommuting has spread beyond the pandemic. 75% of employees in the US would like at least one day of telecommuting per week and more than half, 2.5 days, according to a survey from August 2021. Companies must weigh the costs and benefits of these changes. But now a new study from professors at Columbia University and Stanford looks at how virtual meetings can affect the pace and quality of work. Their results are that, in general, virtual meetings are like face-to-face meetings, except for one detail: meetings to generate creative ideas.
The big difference stems from the forced concentration on the screen in virtual meetings. “By reducing the visual range to a screen, the cognitive focus of communicators is limited,” says the scientific article published this Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“What we found is that people look at their partner more when they interact on video and that this reduced visual focus harms the generation of ideas,” says Melanie Brucks, co-author of the article and professor at Columbia University, by email to EL PAIS . “This is because visual and cognitive focus are linked, so when we visually focus on a screen and filter out the periphery, that in turn causes reduced cognitive focus. In other words, when we’re visually tethered to a screen, we’re less likely to mentally wander,” she adds. This creative process therefore works best when the participants do not have to focus their eyes on the screen.
The experiment was carried out in the laboratory and in real companies in countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The test consisted of pairing more than 2,000 people in offices and remotely to create ideas and select the most useful ones. In the generation the difference was substantial, but not in the selection. The researchers checked whether the increased number of ideas generated were simply minor variations on the original, unimportant. They found that this was not the case, that in-person meetings spark better and more varied creative ideas.
The virtual limitations largely stop there, according to the article. “The cognitive focus reduced by the use of screens does not hinder all collaborative activities. Idea generation is often followed by idea selection, which requires a cognitive approach and analytical reasoning,” they say, and that works well across screens.
The authors give an example to understand the lack of key differences beyond creative ideas: the number of words spoken. “The number of words spoken did not differ significantly, although virtual groups had fewer speaker changes compared to in-person groups and significantly fewer cross talks,” the article says. These types of variables, such as visual connection, which is more complex in virtual environments, do not have notable consequences on ideas, according to the researchers. They also found no substantial differences looking at participants’ familiarity with each other.
It’s not that different really
This part of the study where it is verified that virtual and face-to-face are not so different will be less prominent, but it should not be, according to Brucks: “When we started this project, many people told us that what we were discovering was obvious: of course, video conferencing is bad, it’s just a lower quality version of in-person interaction,” he says.
But, he adds, telecommuting is actually more like real life than you might imagine: “Ironically, while we find that video conferencing slows down idea generation, I think one of the most important demonstrations in this paper is how similar it’s really video conferencing and in-person interaction. In exploring ‘why’ video conferencing reduces idea generation, we examine many potential ways that in-person communication and video conferencing may differ. What we discovered was that video conferencing and in-person interaction are very similar in many aspects of communication,” he explains.
For example, people do not differ significantly in their feelings of connectedness, the number of words spoken, the types of topics discussed (such as personal topics, emotional topics), or social behaviors (such as smiling). “In fact, we even found that in-person and virtual couples trusted their partner with real money alike!” adds Brucks. These are pretty amazing results because, says Brucks, “we’ve created an interface that matches much of the in-person experience. This is quite a technological feat and suggests that video conferencing, in many situations, is not a bad thing. Our results suggest that the negative effect of virtual interaction is unique to idea generation,” he concludes.
The number of people in a meeting does, however, affect its results, both in person and virtual: “Research suggests that face-to-face couples outperform the largest face-to-face and virtual groups, and virtual couples outperform the largest virtual groups. large. Therefore, our recommendation is, cost permitting, to brainstorm in pairs and in person,” the article says.
This difference is not definitive for what companies should choose, say the authors, which will depend on more factors. Virtual meetings, for example, have fewer physical requirements than face-to-face meetings, so they can generate their own advantages. “It’s often much cheaper to have remote workers,” says Brucks. “In the end, innovation is important for a company because it increases profits. Each company will have to decide if the increased creativity is worth the price of seeing each other in person. In addition, remote work allows for broader access to talent, and access to talent varies by industry. These factors, along with others, must be weighed when deciding on work-from-home policies,” he adds.
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