Melanie Brucks, an assistant professor of business at Columbia Business School, recently co-authored a research paper called “Virtual Communication Curbs Idea Generation,” published in the journal Nature.
She and her co-author, Jonathan Levav, concluded that using videoconferencing for generating creative ideas can result in fewer ideas and lower-quality ideas, when compared with peers who worked together in person. However, their preliminary findings also show that once ideas are generated, groups that work virtually are more likely to select the best of the ideas.
Both of those findings, say Brucks and Levav, are attributed to virtual participants focusing directly on the screen with less regard for their surroundings.
Brucks said their findings don’t mean remote work is all bad — just that, in some scenarios, in-person idea generation can be more beneficial.
Distractions Can Help Innovation Happen
Brucks’ study found that when asked to come up with new uses for an everyday object like bubble wrap or a Frisbee, pairs who brainstormed virtually came up with fewer and lower-quality ideas than their peers who paired up in person. Researchers tracked eye movement and found that in-person participants spent more time looking at their surroundings than virtual participants, who tended to spend more time looking at their screens and their partner.
That focus could actually have been the virtual participants’ downfall for idea generation, said Brucks.
“When we’re more unfocused, when we’re cognitively depleted, we’re more creative. When we’re focused, we shut down possible thought pathways that could end up being really creative down the line, because they don’t seem particularly relevant or don’t seem particularly helpful at the current stage you’re at,” she said.
Brucks used a mug as an example. She said most people have the same understanding of what a mug is and what it does. If participants were asked to come up with creative ideas for other ways to use a mug, distracted participants might do better than those who are hyperfocused.
The spontaneous nature of idea generation is these things that seem maybe irrelevant can pop in and end up being helpful.
“If you’re distracted, you might be paying attention to the fact that your back hurts, or you might be noticing that your shoulders are bothering you. If you’re able to refocus, you might kind of shut those thoughts aside, but if you’re a little bit more distracted and a little bit more expansive in your thinking, that can end up feeding into your idea generation. So you could think, ‘Oh, maybe you could use a mug as a posture exercise, to hold on my head.’ The spontaneous nature of idea generation is these things that seem maybe irrelevant can pop in and end up being helpful,” she said.
That type of creative idea generation best happens in person, said Brucks. People have become so focused on their screens during videoconferencing that distractedness is less common through that modality.
Sometimes, the environment around a person can help with their idea generation processes, she said. In some large technology companies and startups, offices serve up amenities like snack stations or Foosball tables for employees that have at times been the butt of jokes. In reality, though, research shows that those amenities may actually be helpful for innovation.
“It makes sense that [amenities like this] would be helpful to make it more playful, to make it more fun. When we’re playful and fun, we’re less regimented or less regulated in our thinking,” she said. “I think it’s really about creating a space where we can feel like we can explore, that we don’t need to feel that we need to be efficient and focus, but we’re able to kind of go down different thought paths and see where they take us.”
Experimenting with Different Behaviors and the Hybrid Workplace
Brucks said experimentation will be important if companies want to continue using video technologies to support idea generation. She said it may lead to more productive brainstorming.
“I teach an innovation class. I had two years where I had to teach it online. And, when [students] did brainstorming, I told them, ‘Try turning off your camera.’ The anecdotal evidence was that it felt really liberating, like they were no longer tethered to the screen. They could finally unleash their thoughts because they were unleashed from this connection we had with our camera and our screen,” she said.
Brucks also suggested that companies could try using the chat feature more. She said that may prevent ideas from dying before they have a chance to surface.
“Research suggests that sometimes when we’re all speaking out loud, we can interrupt each other and prevent block streams from unfolding,” she said.
Brucks thinks the majority of companies will rely on a hybrid work model going forward. She believes that companies that choose to be on the extreme ends — either fully remote or fully virtual — will struggle going forward.
“I think the question really should become, ‘How should we design this hybrid policy?’ What percent of your work is really expansive and generative and requires more of this shared environment, or would benefit from the spontaneous encounters that you might not be able to anticipate? And what percent of work is really about efficiency and focus and deep work?”
VR, AR, and the Metaverse
When teams work together virtually, the only shared space they have with one another is the screen. Each team member has their own environment. Brucks said emerging VR technology and the metaverse may help address that issue for remote workers.
“This idea of having a shared virtual space could help a lot with idea generation,” she said.
Companies should be intentional in deciding what kinds of technology they use. Once VR ends up being more mainstream — which, of course, it inevitably will — it doesn’t mean we should always be using it.
Some companies have already begun rolling out shared office spaces and shared experiences in the metaverse. According to Brucks, future research can and should focus on what technology can expand to do, but companies need to be strategic about moving into the AR/VR and metaverse spaces.
“Companies should be intentional in deciding what kinds of technology they use,” Brucks said. “Once VR ends up being more mainstream — which, of course, it inevitably will — it doesn’t mean we should always be using it.”