Want to increase creativity? Study suggests video calls might be hampering our idea generation
Being tethered to a screen makes us less likely to mentally wander, and this has impacts on our creative thinking.
Thanks to the pandemic, more people are or have been working from home, some if not all of the time, than ever before – and multiple studies and surveys have shown that many would like to carry on doing so, even as the threat from COVID-19 fades. New research carried out in the USA, however, suggests that in-person teams tend to perform better at certain tasks than those working remotely.
Specifically, the researchers found that teams working remotely to come up with creative ideas performed less well than teams working face-to-face – although this applied only to the generation of ideas. When it came to the next stage of the job – selecting which of those ideas were worth pursuing – the two cohorts performed equally well.
The study involved 602 participants, who were assigned randomly to pairs. With half the pairs sitting face-to-face in one room, and half using videoconferencing software, subjects were asked to come up with novel uses for a product such as a Frisbee or bubblewrap, then after five minutes were given a minute to select the best of those ideas. All of their ideas were then passed to a team of independent judges who rated them for both creativity and practicality.
The researchers found that the remote teams generated a greater number and wider range of ideas than the in-person teams, although when it came to their ability to pick the 'best' idea (rated by comparing the creativity and practicality scores of the ideas they chose with the scores of those picked by the judges), there was little difference between the two groups.
To make sure that the traits observed, and the conclusions drawn, weren’t specific to any given population group – the original experiments were conducted on US university campuses, and respondents skewed strongly young and female – the tests were then replicated, with the subjects this time being some 1,490 engineers working for a large international telecoms infrastructure company. This second cohort came from five countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
For this second set of tests, participants were asked not to think of hypothetical uses but to come up with new product ideas for their real-life employer – the idea here being that this would more closely replicate a real-world scenario.
Using a variety of methods, including linguistic analysis and gaze-tracking as well as testing participants’ ability to recall objects seen in the test environment, the researchers found that people working in person looked around the room and talked ‘across’ each other more, whereas those using videoconferencing software tended to take it in turns to speak and keep their eyes on the screen. These things negatively correlated with idea generation.
The researchers concluded that this narrowing of the visual scope may lead to an attendant narrowing of overall cognitive focus, making it harder to come up with novel, creative or off-the-wall ideas.
"When we visually focus on a screen and filter out peripheral input, this in turn prompts a narrowed cognitive focus, but creativity benefits from unfocused thinking." said Prof Melanie Brucks, co-author of the new research. "In other words, when we are visually tethered to a screen, we are less likely to mentally wander."
Despite this, many employees will need to continue using videoconferencing for work – a YouGov study in late 2021 found that more than half of UK survey respondents wanted to work from home at least some of the time. According to their results, Brucks suggests employers who have hybrid workers save the more creative, exploratory work during in-person times.
As the study found that participants who took the time to gaze around the room and look at the environment they were in had an increased number of creative ideas, perhaps an interval for eye-wandering should be factored into your next Teams call?
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Russell Deeks is a freelance writer with nearly 30 years’ journalism experience, working across the fields of music, technology and science – which, he says, cross over more often than you might think. Despite the drawback of holding a degree in English & American Literature, he has been a regular contributor to BBC Science Focus since 2006.