For many, stutters, freezes, “you’re on mute!”, and other awkward silences have come to define our dreary early-morning Zoom meetings. But now, research has shown that our recent shift towards video-conferencing is even sapping our creativity.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, companies have increased the flexibility of their work-from-home policies, allowing employees to work remotely and join meetings by teleconferencing software.
It is now estimated that around 20% of all workdays in the U.S will be conducted remotely, even after the end of the pandemic. Belgian companies are halving their office spaces in Brussels due to the prevalence of work-from-home culture new, flexible work policies.
No visual stimulus
A recent paper published by researchers from Columbia and Stanford universities has suggested that face-to-face meetings provide more creative and inventive ideas, while Zoom meetings stifle creativity.
The researchers recruited over 600 volunteers who were paired up and asked to tackle a task together, either in the same room or over Zoom. Participants were picked from across Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The test subjects were asked to come up with creative uses for a Frisbee or bubble wrap in five minutes, with just under a minute to agree on their best idea.
Independent judges ultimately decided which ideas were most creative, and counted the number of proposed solutions. All in all, those working over Zoom proposed 20% fewer ideas than those who worked face-to-face.
A consequent field study organised by the researchers, which used 1,490 employees from a large multinational telecommunications company, demonstrated that the same effect was visible in real-life. Employees produced more ideas, and importantly more creative ideas, when working face-to-face.
The issue, the research suggests, is that Zoom detracts from visual focus, which prevents the creation of new ideas. People in face-to-face meetings also have more visual stimulus in their environment for them to draw inspiration from.
A similar study by Professor Jeremy Bailenson from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab demonstrated that over-using Zoom can even lead to health issues. Video calls force participants to make extended eye contact, which can exacerbate social anxiety, and video conferencing has been shown to be more mentally taxing.
This does not mean, however, that the utility of Zoom is diminished. The teleworking software has allowed for greater mobility and flexibility and helped shelter individuals against the early stages of the pandemic.
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The research data showed that there was no significant difference in the capacity to make decisions between zoom and face-to-face meetings.
Needless to say, even in-person meetings can be unproductive. While in-person meetings appear to be more fruitful, employees are still likely to get distracted by their surroundings.
One meeting from the study, held by employees in a Polish hotel, had a “preoccupation with the hotel catering’s coffee and cookie station”, which the study described as “rampant non-compliance” with the goals of the experiment.