In-person teamwork has now transformed into virtual collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But does this affect innovation and creativity?
An interesting study on virtual communication led by Dr. Melanie S. Brucks from Columbia University and Prof. Jonathan Levav from Stanford University is published in the journal Nature. The study examines whether videoconferencing affects creative idea generation.
Study: Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock
Communication and collaboration
Collaboration is essential for several workplace tasks. It leads to innovation and idea generation. Historically, these collaborations have been in-person and required sharing of the same physical space. The use of traditional communication technologies like letters, emails, and phone calls hinder the smooth exchange of information and limits collaboration.
Now, due to advances in audio-visual technology, face-to-face interaction is possible via videoconferencing, allowing virtual collaboration. Videoconferencing has replaced in-person interactions due to pandemic-driven social distancing. Video interaction and in-person interaction allow communication of the same information.
While videoconferencing replacing in-person interaction has been beneficial in the social scenario, does it come with a cost in the workplace scenario? For example, does it affect collaborative idea generation?
The investigators performed a Laboratory experiment and a field experiment to test the difference between in-person interaction and videoconferencing in collaborative idea generation. First, they recruited participants and divided them into pairs: half of the pairs were assigned to an in-person setting, and the rest were assigned to a virtual setting.
A total of 602 participants were recruited for the laboratory experiment and divided into pairs. The participants were in separate rooms in the virtual setting and communicated through videoconferencing. The pairs were allotted five minutes to generate creative uses for a frisbee (150 pairs) or bubble wrap (151 pairs) and then one minute to select their most innovative idea.
The pairs were evaluated by counting the number of creative ideas and ideas they generated. The virtual pairs generated significantly fewer total and creative ideas compared to in-person pairs.
So, virtual collaboration hampered creative ideas. This could be because the virtual space narrows the visual scope, which in turn narrows the cognitive scope. To assess the visual focus, two methods were used. Firstly, the participants had to recollect the individual props in the room and point them on a worksheet. Secondly, the participants' eye gaze was recorded during the experiment.
The virtual pairs narrowed their focus to the screen. Compared to in-person pairs, they spent significantly more time looking directly at their partner and less time looking at the surrounding room, and remembered significantly fewer props in the surrounding room.
As a consequence, the virtual medium narrowed the visual focus and inhibited the generation of ideas.
However, these results are in the context of a controlled laboratory setting.
The experiment was repeated in 'the field' under actual work conditions within a large multinational telecommunications company to see if these results could be extrapolated to the real world. The field experiment was conducted in five country sites - in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. In this setting, the participants knew their partners and used video conferencing regularly for work. Moreover, it included domain experts highly invested in the outcome of the collaboration.
A total of 1,490 engineers were recruited to participate in an ideation workshop and randomly divided into pairs. The pairs were allotted an hour to generate product ideas and submit one idea as future product innovation for the company.
The engineer pairs who worked on the task virtually generated fewer total ideas and creative ideas than in-person pairs at all five sites.
However, the decision quality was not affected by virtual collaboration. The in-person pairs generated a significantly higher top-scoring idea, but the selected idea did not significantly differ in quality between the virtual pairs and in-person pairs.
Other reasons for reduced creativity
The could be other reasons why virtual collaboration negatively affected idea generation. Therefore, the investigators explored the alternative explanations.
Since the in-person collaborators generated more total and creative ideas than the virtual collaborators, they could generate additional ideas similar to each other. However, upon semantic analysis, it was observed that they generated diverse and disconnected ideas.
Feelings of connection and trust
Studies have shown that feelings of connection and trust can foster team creativity. The virtual pairs may have reduced feelings of connection and trust toward their partner.
However, when assessed for subjective feelings of closeness, verbal and non-verbal behaviors, and mimicry, the virtual pairs were similar to in-person pairs in the laboratory experiment.
Thus, virtual and in-person interactions are very similar in terms of social connection or social behavior.
Usually, there is a lack of coordination in a conversation in virtual interactions due to the absence of eye contact. However, it could not wholly explain the effect of virtual interaction on idea generation.
This study also assessed the effect of interpersonal processes on idea generation. Interpersonal processes fear of evaluation, dominance, social facilitation, social loafing, social sensitivity, perceptions of performance, and production blocking were affected in virtual collaborations and these, in turn, affected idea generation.
Implications of the study
This study supports previous research suggesting that pairs perform better than large groups, both in-person and online. Therefore, this study recommends ideation in pairs and in person. Also, this study suggests that larger videoconferencing screens would not impact idea generation.
In-person collaborations offer a cognitive advantage. Now several workplaces are moving towards a hybrid setup. This study indicates that the creative idea generation should be reserved for in-person meetings.