Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.
The zeitgeist of the past two years could well be embodied by the video conference call. These virtual conference rooms have become the principal way groups communicate while so many people teleworking are still wary of COVID. Now a detailed academic study shows that the video meeting format limits creativity, relative to how many ideas people come up with when they meet in person. For details, the study’s principal author, Melanie Brooks, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin .
Tom Temin: How did you arrive at the conclusion that virtual meetings or video meetings limit creativity. Not so much productivity, but creativity, relative to a bunch of thinkers getting together around the conference room with doughnuts and coffee?
Melanie Brooks: It’s interesting, because this project started way before COVID, years before COVID, actually. And we heard from executives that they were struggling to innovate with their remote teams. And to be honest, I was a little bit skeptical, because I think that video conferencing technologies like Zoom actually mimic in person interaction quite well. So we decided to actually put it to the test and see, is it the case that in-person interaction actually leads to more creativity than interacting on technology such as Zoom?
Tom Temin: Then how did you arrive at your conclusion? What methodology did you use to determine this?
Melanie Brooks: So we wanted to hold constant all the other differences that remote teams have with in-person teams to really see fundamentally, is there a difference between being in the same physical space versus interacting on video. So in our first experiment, we brought people into the lab, they actually met in person first, and then we randomly assigned them to either meet in the same physical space, or interact in two identical lab rooms with a 15-inch display of their partner space instead. And we had them generate ideas first, and then look over their ideas and identify which idea had the most potential afterwards.
Tom Temin: And who are these people that you experimented with? Are they designers, or what are they?
Melanie Brooks: So initially, in the lab experiment, this was at Stanford, and it was just Stanford students and employees, but we then followed it up in the field and worked with an engineering company, and then randomly assigned engineers to work in-person or virtually as well. So we find that this generalizes, across many different kinds of people.
Tom Temin: And you did this internationally? From the study, you had pairs of engineers, all connected to a giant conglomerate, but they were in different nations?
Melanie Brooks: Absolutely. And one thing that’s really nice about using a sample is they use video conferencing all the time in this company. So even amongst people who are very familiar with this technology, we’re still observing the same effects.
Tom Temin: And this was a telecommunications services and engineering company, correct? Yeah, absolutely. All right, and what was your methodology for counting ideas they came up with? I mean, what kind of scripting do they have? And how did you monitor what was coming out of their mouth as they spoke?
Melanie Brooks: So we actually have them write down their ideas. So we could see word for word, what ideas they were generating. And we measured their creativity two different ways. First, we looked at total ideas, like, are you coming up with more ideas when you’re in person compared to when you’re remote? And then we actually gave these ideas to outside judges. In the fields experiment, we actually had the engineers evaluate their own ideas. And so we want to see how’s it affecting the quality of ideas as well. And again, we find that in-person teams not only generate more ideas, they generate a larger quantity of high quality ideas as well. So we’re having more ideas, and a larger number of good ideas. This is when we’re meeting in person.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Melanie Brooks, she’s an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University and coauthor of a major study on idea generation in the Zoom or video conferencing setting. And give us some numbers here was it 1000 ideas in one setting and only 25 in another?
Melanie Brooks: Yeah, we find around 20% decrease when we move from in-person to remote work. And this might seem a little bit modest. But if you think about every single idea generation setting you have each time you’re losing 20% of the output you could have if you were meeting in-person.
Tom Temin: So in many ways, it is a productivity and not simply a creativity question, especially when you need to have solutions for real corporate engineering problems.
Melanie Brooks: Absolutely. So when it comes to the early stages of innovation, and coming up with new ideas, you can’t rely on just having one idea. You’re not really sure what’s going to be successful. What’s going to work out. You need to have this set of ideas, of high potential ideas to draw from and so really look at in this early stage, and we want to be generating a lot of potential solutions to these really hard problems. Do we want to be in person? Or do we want to be remote? And I think the answer is, if possible, we want to be in person.
Tom Temin: And do you believe that these results are projectable across other disciplines say, well, in the case of government work, or public sector work, program design, or program mission improvement, which a lot of people collaborate on in the federal government, or in scientific settings where people might be designing experiments?
Melanie Brooks: So it all depends on what kinds of thinking are you engaging in when you’re doing these tasks. And what we find is it really hurts this divergent process, like branching out and coming up with new ideas. And so to the extent that a task involves branching out, thinking differently about a problem, expansively considering a problem space. Our research suggests that it should apply in new situations where we want to be in-person for that kind of task.
Tom Temin: And when the engineers involved in the experiment saw the results, what kind of reactions did you get?
Melanie Brooks: I think that it’s interesting, the reactions that we’ve gotten not just amongst those engineers, but from people more broadly, is that there’s a lot of dogmatism when it comes to being in-person or, or working remotely. And I completely understand why. There’s a lot of lifestyle changes that are associated with each of these things. And this work doesn’t have an agenda. I’m not saying that this means we need to be in-person. I’m not saying this means that remote work isn’t possible when it comes to coming up with new ideas. It’s simply looking at if we held everything constant, which thing would be better, both in-person and remote, which would be preferable for coming up with new ideas. And I think that, hopefully, this can help this guide a thoughtful and nuanced decision process about what to do next.
Tom Temin: And you’re a professor, so presumably, you teach students in your work at Columbia, and the education and training market has become upended, as we know, by the COVID in the induction of widescale remote. What’s your sense of that particular domain, training and education?
Melanie Brooks: I think that’s a really important question. And it really merits more research. But I think that it really depends on how many people are in the meeting. For example, so we were only looking at dyads, of groups of two. And this case, you know, one-on-one, we’re looking at each other, engaged with each other. As soon as it becomes a large group, I think that is possible that video can encourage loafing, not engaging as much, kind of disengaging from the interaction. So I really want to run some more studies. And I’m planning on doing doing this with larger groups. And also in cases where maybe one person is talking and other people are more absorbing, I think this could really important factors to consider before making any strong conclusions.
Tom Temin: Because there are also cultural issues here. You know, when someone turns their camera off, and they’re on mute, you don’t know whether they’re there or off to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or talking on another phone call?
Melanie Brooks: Absolutely. So I think that one is a one-on-one interaction, you know, whether or not they’re engaged. And so things like turning off a camera might not be as problematic. But yes, if you’re in a large group, and one person has their camera off and how he’s spoken in an hour, you do wonder whether you’ve been there, right. And so I think norms are really important, and we’re still figuring it out. It’s still early days.
Tom Temin: All right, Spoken like a true academic. These findings lead to the need for more research then. Absolutely. Dr. Melanie Brooks is assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University.