As companies, organizations, and teams wrestle with defining new return-to-work (RTW) vs work-from-home (WFH) protocols, new research sheds some light on how virtual communication can impact idea generation, creative collaboration, and decision making.
Throughout the pandemic, videoconferencing became an essential tool for companies, organizations, and pretty much everyone, to communicate, share ideas, and collaborate remotely. Applications such as Zoom, MS Teams, and Webex became ubiquitous and have since become essential parts of everyone’s communication toolkit. Businesses, schools, labs, and institutions embraced the technology as it enabled employees, teams, researchers, and students to continue to meet, collaborate, learn, present, and communicate.
Users developed a love-hate relationship with the medium as it both empowered their autonomy but also reduced human interactions to distant, depthless, Orwellian apparitions with disembodied heads, gallery grids, and phony backgrounds. As companies and organizations applauded video conferencing’s ability to keep employees, teams, and students connected and productive, some users questioned the efficacy of the medium for creative collaboration. A recently published paper in Nature reports research findings that seem to confirm these concerns by suggesting that virtual communication curbs creative ideation by virtue of its isolating, two-dimensional format.
“…videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus. Our results suggest that virtual interaction comes with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation.”
The authors elaborate by suggesting that team ideation often relies on body language, subtle visual cues, and a shared, three-dimensional space. Being in the same room or general physical environment seems to matter to our neurocognitive brains, as shared ideas need to percolate, bounce around, get tested and built upon. Apparently, neural pathways key to innovative thinking are less open during a Zoom call due to its myopic interface.
“Our data suggest that this physical difference in shared space compels virtual communicators to narrow their visual field by concentrating on the screen and filtering out peripheral visual stimuli that are not visible or relevant to their partner. According to previous research that empirically and neurologically links visual and cognitive attention, as virtual communicators narrow their visual scope to the shared environment of a screen, their cognitive focus narrows in turn. This narrowed focus constrains the associative process underlying idea generation, whereby thoughts ‘branch out’ and activate disparate information that is then combined to form new ideas.”
The research, however, also suggests that there seem to be no deficits in using video conferencing for idea selection, which requires a different set of cognitive skills. Creative ideation demands a broad and diverse set of inputs, cues, stimuli, and interactions whereas deliberation and selection demand less diversity of input, cogitation, and interaction.
The takeaway for any organization or leader is to consider how best to meet the contrasting demands of both innovation and deliberative thinking when it comes to remote vs on-location teams. The evidence suggests relegating analysis and adjudication to Zoom while favoring on-location experiences for idea generation, creative collaboration, and innovation.
Sean Grace writes about creative communication, innovation, learning and leadership development.