In my house there was a clear pandemic dichotomy. While I hated being cooped up at home as much as everyone else, working remotely didn’t bother me at all. I’ve been a freelance writer for years, so not much has changed in my professional life. However, my husband, a screenwriter, hated working remotely.
What explains the big difference in our experiences? Of course, our personalities play a role. My husband is outgoing while I am a natural loner. But the real dividing line seemed to be how we worked.
We are both writers, but while the work I do is mostly lonely, film is a huge collaboration. Writing screenplays almost always involves working with a team. And a pandemic experience quickly convinced my husband that Zoom was an absolutely terrible tool for creative collaboration. A detailed research report on remote working from Microsoft and the Netflix CEO shares this conclusion†
Research from Columbia Business School also suggests that those concerned that Zoom is killing group creativity are not wrong. The study, recently published in Natureshowed that Zoom is bad for brainstorming, but offered a simple suggestion to increase your chances of coming up with good ideas remotely.
Zoom is a creativity killer.
The design of the study was simple. The researchers matched more than 2,000 volunteers and asked them to come up with as many new ideas for a new product or feature as possible. Then the teams selected the most promising idea from their list. The twist was that some couples brainstormed together in the same room and some via Zoom.
How do their performances compare? Those who brainstormed about Zoom came up with significantly fewer ideas than the couples sharing a room, though they were better at picking the best idea from their list. The magnitude of the difference between the two brainstorming methods surprised the researchers.
“We conducted this experiment based on feedback from companies that it was more difficult to innovate with remote workers, and I admit I was skeptical,” lead author Melanie Brucks told Scientific American† “Unlike other forms of virtual communication, such as phone calls or email, video conferencing mimics the face-to-face experience quite well, so I was surprised to find meaningful differences between face-to-face and video interaction for idea generation.”
Why were couples using Zoom so much worse at generating innovative ideas? The researchers think it has to do with attention. When you’re on Zoom, it’s hard to look away from both your conversation partner and the box with your own image. That means those who brainstorm about Zoom are less likely to let their attention wander, which is likely to hinder their creativity.
or if Scientific American it stated: “The new work suggests that daydreaming and staring into a conference room could improve thinking during creative pursuits.” You cannot search for inspiration in your environment on Zoom.
An easy (if partial) solution
The good news is that this explanation also points to a simple solution: just turn off your camera. This should give you more freedom to move and look around the room, greatly increasing your chances of coming up with more great ideas.
Still, Brucks and her fellow researchers are skeptical that turning off the cameras completely eliminates the drawbacks of remote brainstorming, meaning many leaders may want to bring employees back to the office for the idea-generating part of the innovation process.
If they look like my frustrated husband, they will be overjoyed. He ran back to face-to-face meetings as soon as health restrictions allowed and still swears there’s no substitute for face-to-face brainstorming. I’m sending him this column so he knows he has science on his side.