Monday, May 02, 2022

Does Remote Work Harm Creativity & Innovation?


Melanie S. Brucks & Jonathan Levav have published a new paper in Nature titled, "Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation."    The scholars conducted a laboratory experiment as well as a field experiment with 1,490 engineers from five nations around the world.  The researchers found that remote collaboration hampers idea generation.  However, they found that remote collaboration has no impact on the ability of groups to select the best ideas to be implemented.   Here's an excerpt:

Here we show that, even if video interaction could communicate the same information, there remains an inherent and overlooked physical difference in communicating through video that is not psychologically benign: in-person teams operate in a fully shared physical space, whereas virtual teams inhabit a virtual space that is bounded by the screen in front of each member. 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. Yet the narrowed cognitive focus induced by the use of screens in virtual interaction does not hinder all collaborative activities. Specifically, idea generation is typically followed by selecting which idea to pursue, which requires cognitive focus and analytical reasoning. Here we show that virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation—we find that videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus, but we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective when it comes to idea selection.

Naturally, more research will be need to be conducted to see if others can replicate these findings in other contexts.   Perhaps the ability for remote work groups to collaborate creatively will be stronger in other circumstances or with the right type of leadership/facilitation.  However, this study highlights a very important phenomenon: the narrowing of cognitive focus.  Teams will need to be acutely aware of the negative effects of this "tunnel vision" as they work in remote and/or hybrid environments.  

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