COLLABORATION IS ESSENTIAL TO MY WORK with individuals with cancer. I am a radiation oncologist and routinely interact with medical oncologists, surgeons, plastic surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, social workers, dieticians, and more.
With the rise of the COVID19 pandemic, many of us have an increasing volume of work interactions mediated through computer screens.
The workplace is changing: The National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States offers that when the pandemic comes to a close, 20 percent of workdays will be from home, compared with five percent in the per-COVID19 era.
I attended my institution’s multidisciplinary tumor board this morning. More than a dozen clinicians gather to review each patient’s management. Everyone puts eyes on the diagnostic images, pathology slides, and more. I think of tumor boards as collective intelligence.
But do we make better and more creative solutions face-to-face? This is my question today and one that thousands of businesses are asking themselves.
Now, Columbia University Business investigators provide some answers in a study recently published in Nature.
Virtual meetings and creativity
Melanie Brucks, of Columbia Business School (USA) and author of the study, recruited 602 people, including university students and staff.
She and her team divided the subjects by working in pairs, either virtually or in person. Assigned tasks included creating new uses for everyday items (such as bubble wrap), with each room having the same five items.
The researchers analyzed the performance of each pair in two ways:
- How many ideas did they create? And how novel and valuable did the ideas seem? For example, one could use a Frisbee to deliver a message. Using the frisbee as a hat? Not so creative. Student judges took charge of evaluating the ideas generated.
- Eye-tracking software.
Here are the findings: The eye-tracking software found that virtual subjects spent more time looking directly at their partner than gazing around the room.
In addition, the videoconferencing pairs remembered less about their surroundings than those meeting in person.
Speaking to CNN, postdoctoral scholar Jay Olson of McGill University (Canada) explains that people often look to their surroundings to help generate new ideas. I know that I do.
Virtual meetings and creativity in the real world
Yes, Michael, you offer. But what about outside of the artificial laboratory setting? Are in-person meetings truly better than virtual ones?
We get an answer in a larger research investigation, one looking at nearly 1,500 engineers working in five countries (in South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe) for a telecommunications infrastructure company.
Researchers randomly paired the subjects, assigning them to work face-to-face or through videoconferencing. The assignment? Create product ideas and select one to submit as a new product.
The real-world test yielded results similar to the laboratory ones, with the field study showing the negative effects of videoconferencing on idea generation.
The field study did not show any videoconferencing-induced impairment of collaborative work. Generating ideas appeared easier in person, but critical evaluation of creative ideas (such as choosing the best idea of a set) did not appear impaired by the video approach.
Are virtual meetings bad for creativity?
The studies reviewed are illuminating but do not mean that videoconferencing is contraindicated regarding creative endeavors.
Common sense tells me that the type of creative task matters. I know that for some tasks, I am most creative working alone! Full disclosure: I’m not too fond of meetings that are not truly needed and want them to be agenda-driven and focused. Poorly-run meetings suck the life force out of me (and make me a bit grumpy). My bête noir.
Where I find face-to-face meetings particularly valuable is brainstorming sessions. In the studies reviewed, the number of additional ideas generated by the in-person group appeared small.
What say you?