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For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant no more commutes, no more showering, no more putting on pants—just virtual meeting after virtual meeting. Some research shows this adjustment might not impact workplace productivity to any great degree. A new study, though, suggests otherwise.

The research, published today in Nature, found that video calls, as opposed to in-person meetings, reduce creative collaboration and the generation of novel ideas. The results indicate that while the mental cogs keep running more or less smoothly when working remotely, group innovation might be hindered. The findings could stiffen employers’ resolve to urge or require their employees to trek back to the office.

In the new study, the authors first recruited 602 participants, who were randomly paired and asked to come up with creative uses for a product. They were also randomly selected to work together either in person or virtually. The pairs were then ranked by assessing their gross number of ideas, as well as those concepts’ degree of novelty, and asked to submit their best idea.

Among the groups, virtual pairs came up with significantly fewer ideas, suggesting that something about face-to-face interaction generates a prolific creative spark. Yet the virtual pairs scored better when selecting their highest-quality concept.

By analyzing a subset of study participants, the authors found that higher levels of in-person creativity might relate to a narrowing of cognitive focus during virtual communication. When random objects were placed in both the virtual and physical rooms, the virtual pairs of participants spent more time looking directly at each other rather than letting their gaze wander about the room and taking in the entire scene. Eyeing one’s whole environment and noticing the random objects was associated with increased idea generation.

The study also included a real-world “field experiment” in which virtual versus face-to-face creativity was assessed in nearly 1,500 telecommunication engineers from five different countries. Randomized participant pairs were asked to generate new ideas and decide on one to submit for future product development. Again, in-person encounters resulted in more creative concepts. Yet the quality of their final idea did not differ from that of pairs in the virtual group.

“We ran this experiment based on feedback from companies that it was harder to innovate with remote workers, and I’ll admit I was skeptical,” says Melanie Brucks, lead author of the new paper and an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. “Unlike other forms of virtual communication, like phone calls or e-mail, videoconferencing mimics the in-person experience quite well, so I was surprised when we found meaningful differences between in-person and video interaction for idea generation.”

Yet Brucks emphasizes that something about virtual communications enables a group to select its best idea with equal or even better reliability.

“The findings show that face-to-face teams ideate better than virtual teams but that face-to-face teams and virtual teams are equally good at choosing the top solution or idea from a list of possible options,” comments Brian Uzzi, a professor of leadership at the Kellogg School of Management, who reviewed the new study but was not directly involved in the research. Uzzi also co-authored a News & Views piece accompanying the paper in Nature.

“This study does a very nice job of highlighting the importance of attention in the process of creativity,” comments Georgetown neuroscientist Adam Green, who specializes in creativity research, but who was not involved in the new research. “A fundamental element of the process of generating creative ideas is that you have to point your attention inward. When something external draws a lot of your attention, there isn’t as much attention available to support creative ideation”

The new work suggests that daydreaming and gazing around a conference room might enhance thinking during creative pursuits. On platforms such as Zoom, the screen monopolizes our interactions. Our gaze wavers less. Looking away might come across as rude, Brucks speculates. “I think we feel compelled to look at the screen because that is the defined context of the interaction…,” she says, “the same way we wouldn’t walk to another room while talking to someone in person.”

Like most educators, Brucks primarily taught virtually throughout the pandemic, and she did notice some benefits of the approach as well. Her students were more likely to take turns speaking and less likely to talk over one another, as they tend to do in an in-person class. She also noticed that teaching remotely allowed her shyer students to speak up more often, rid of the anxiety that comes from addressing a large classroom.

Brucks adds that one solution to improving virtual idea generation might be to simply turn off our camera. She notes anecdotally that her students felt “freer” and more creative when asked to do so. “They were untethered to their screens while generating ideas,” Brucks recalls.

This may be sound advice given that the American workplace has evolved, perhaps for good. A recent survey conducted by Harvard Business Review found that Americans would prefer to work remotely on an average of 2.5 days per week. Other research suggests that in the future, up to 20 percent of U.S. workdays will occur at home, even if the severity of the pandemic continues to lessen. Many major companies—Google, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase and Amazon included—are adopting increasingly lenient work-from-home policies.

But Brucks’s findings suggest that stepping foot in a physical office may have some advantages. And some corporations, such as Goldman Sachs, have demanded their employees return to full-time in-person work. (In Goldman’s case, only half have done so as of February.)

Perhaps the American workplace will find a compromise—a sweet spot in the middle that balances working from both home and office.

“The office is not dead,” Uzzi says. “Virtual teamwork can’t replace face-to-face teamwork.  Idea selection proficiency is only valuable if you have strong options to select from, and face-to-face teams are the best means to generate winning options.”

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