Virtual meetings might stifle creativity, studies show

Recent studies suggest brainstorming sessions conducted via videoconference may yield less creative ideas than in-person meetings.

One such study, published April 27 in Nature, involved 602 participants who were divided into pairs and tasked with inventing new uses for everyday items such as a Frisbee or bubble wrap. They collaborated in person or virtually.

Using eye-tracking software, the researchers found virtual participants spent more time looking at their partner instead of looking around the room. Additionally, virtual participants remembered less about the room they were in, even though virtual and in-person participants were placed in identical rooms.

Dr. Jay Olson, a scholar at Montreal-based McGill University who studies ways to measure creativity, told CNN people often generate ideas after being inspired by their surroundings.

"Objects in the room can prompt new associations easier than trying to generate them all internally," Dr. Olson said. "The authors find that interacting through a computer screen could unintentionally shift attention in a way that reduces the generation of these novel ideas."

The study's findings were mirrored in a larger experiment in which 1,490 engineers working for a telecommunications company were paired to develop product ideas either in person or virtually. Melanie Brucks, PhD, one of the authors of the study published in Nature, told CNN this experiment showed virtual meetings' negative effect on idea generation "is not limited to simplistic tasks and can play out in more complicated and high-tech brainstorming sessions as well."

Dr. Olson said although the negative effects of videoconferencing may seem robust from these two studies, creative outcomes stemming from in-person meetings can vary widely depending on the type of company.

"I wouldn't want to see a company double their in-person meetings hoping to improve their innovation, if this also means doubling the commute time resulting in less happy — and perhaps less creative — employees," he said.

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