A recent study found that video conferencing dampens creativity, so its co-author advised businesses to include regular in-person meetings to generate ideas that would be missed if employees worked only from home.
The research published in Nature last month showed that people in video meetings were less creative than those gathered in the same room. While the paper didn't determine why, study co-author Melanie Brucks said it's likely due to how video conferences force people to focus on a computer screen.
"When you're visually narrowing yourself… you're putting blinders on, basically," Brucks said.
The findings do not mean businesses should order employees back to the office, said Brucks, a marketing professor at Columbia University. But managers should schedule brainstorming sessions when people are in the office.
The paper supports executives, such as JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who have argued that too much out-of-office work would hurt creativity and weaken corporate culture. However, many businesses, including JPMorgan, have recently acknowledged that retaining workers will require some accommodation for flexible work schedules.
To help businesses deal with the dilemma, Brucks and Stanford professor Jonathan Levav decided to put the lack of innovation claims to the test. At first, Brucks was skeptical that the study would reveal a creativity gulf, initially attributing the problem to manager discomfort with video meetings.
"People freak out whenever new technology is introduced," she said.
However, the study found that Stanford students came up with fewer and less creative ideas when asked to describe unique ways to use a Frisbee or bubble wrap during video conferences. The researchers got similar results from telecommunication engineers brainstorming new products.
The findings raise questions on whether virtual whiteboards in collaboration products can bolster creativity, as claimed by vendors. Brucks was skeptical that whiteboards offered by Zoom, Mural and Miro would solve the video conferencing problem.
Tech pros weigh in
Technology professionals have seen video conferencing's toll on creativity firsthand. Niel Nickolaisen, CIO at Sorenson Communications in Salt Lake City, said people attending video meetings often miss the big picture.
"With the online tools, no one can see the entire diagram or notes [from the] conversation at a glance," he said. "We cannot see the big picture, except in parts and pieces… someone has to scroll around to get to the points of interest."
Also, in-person meetings have nuances that video conferencing apps miss, said Willem Bagchus, messaging and collaboration specialist at United Bank in Charleston, W. Va. Remote sessions are often highly focused on the task at hand, while in-person discussions often touch on various topics, sparking new ideas.
"There is no substitute for real, live human contact. None," Bagchus said. "We can come close -- technology has come a very, very long way -- but there's just no substitute for the real thing."
Some people have not seen a creativity dip, though. Chris McMasters, CIO of Corona, Calif., said city workers had continued to innovate despite remote work. For example, Corona won a national award in 2021 from the Center for Digital Government for city services that moved to the cloud to provide citizens with easier access.
While the study's findings may seem damning to remote-work advocates, companies should be careful about drawing broad conclusions, Brucks said. The paper only considers the cognitive impacts of video collaboration and doesn't weigh them against the other benefits of video conferencing.
For example, video conferencing allows companies to draw from a wider talent pool since living near the office is no longer required. That larger pool could enable companies to recruit a more creative workforce. Also, people allowed to work from home feel more supported by their employers, which drives creativity, Brucks said.
"This [study] is not saying that we have to be in person in order to be creative," she said.
Rather than forcing a return to the office, companies should be strategic about worker schedules, Brucks said. Managers should set brainstorming sessions when their teams are in the office while scheduling people to work from home on jobs requiring intense focus.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.