Apr 28, 2022 - Science

The cost of Zoom

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

All those Zoom meetings could be stunting innovation at work.

Why it matters: A new study offers data for employers grappling with how to balance the benefits of in-person work with its costs.

Details: In-person meetings generate more ideas — and more creative ones — compared to videoconferencing, according to new research published this week.

  • But choosing which idea to then pursue — a key subsequent step in brainstorming — wasn't stymied by videoconferencing, Melanie Brucks of Columbia Business School and Jonathan Levav of the Stanford Graduate School of Business report in the journal Nature.
  • People may even be more effective at selecting ideas in virtual meetings, the researchers suggest, based on preliminary data in the study.

Zoom in: In a laboratory study that started before the pandemic, more than 600 people worked in pairs in person or virtually for five minutes to come up with ideas for how to creatively use bubble wrap or a Frisbee.

  • Then they had a minute to pick their best idea. Judges scored the creativity of their ideas — based on novelty and value.
  • They found pairs working on Zoom came up with fewer ideas.
  • The same effect was seen in field studies of 1,490 engineers who paired up to brainstorm during workshops at a multinational telecommunications company.
  • The study highlights that these "intermediating computer interfaces are increasingly modulating all kinds of activity" and need to be scrutinized and studied, says James Evans, a sociologist at The University of Chicago who studies the origin of ideas and innovation.

What's happening: An often overlooked ingredient in the secret sauce of collaboration is that, in person, team members typically share visual cues from their environment — and each other — that can spur ideas.

  • In a virtual meeting, all eyes are focused on screens and ignore the environment, which "constrains the associative process underlying idea generation," say Brucks and Levav.
  • In the laboratory study, virtual pairs spent more time looking at their partner and less time looking at the surrounding room, and remembered fewer unexpected props (a large house plant or a bowl of lemons) in the room compared to in-person pairs.

People also move less when they meet virtually: "Staying still hinders creativity," says Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford who studies virtual human interaction.

  • During in-person meetings or even phone calls, we can look around, walk around, multitask and use our hands. All of the movement stimulates creativity, he says.

But, but, but: The study only looks at the cognitive costs of collaborating virtually, and the authors note that there are "concrete and immediate economic advantages to virtual interaction," including reduced travel time and expenses, less overhead and other factors, to be balanced.

  • Some meetings — like a team update — might require video so a manager can see everyone's faces. But others — like brainstorm sessions — might be better as audio-only calls, or even in-person retreats.

The bottom line: "Bosses need to be smarter about how we schedule meetings," Bailenson says.

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