In my house, there was a clear pandemic dichotomy. While I hated being cooped up at home as much as anybody, working remotely didn't bother me at all. I've been a freelance writer for years, so not much changed in my professional life. However, my husband, a screenwriter, loathed remote work.
What accounts for the stark difference in our experiences? Certainly, our personalities play a role. My husband is outgoing, while I'm a natural loner. But the real dividing line seemed to be how we worked.
We're both writers, but while the work I do is largely solitary, film is hugely collaborative. Writing screenplays nearly always involves working with a team. And pandemic experience very quickly convinced my husband that Zoom was an absolutely horrendous tool for creative collaboration. A detailed research report on remote work from Microsoft and the CEO of Netflix share this conclusion.
Now, research out of Columbia Business School also suggests those worrying that Zoom kills group creativity aren't wrong. The study, recently published in Nature, showed Zoom is terrible for brainstorming, but offered a simple suggestion to improve your odds of coming up with good ideas at a distance.
Zoom is a creativity killer
The setup for the study was straightforward. The researchers paired up more than 2,000 volunteers and asked them to come up with as many new ideas for either a new product or a new feature as they possibly could. Then the teams selected the most promising idea from their list. The twist was that some of the pairs brainstormed together in the same room and some over Zoom.
How did their performance compare? Those who did their brainstorming over Zoom came up with significantly fewer ideas than those pairs who shared a room, though they were better at choosing the best idea from their list. The scale of the difference between the two brainstorming methods surprised the researchers.
"We ran this experiment based on feedback from companies that it was harder to innovate with remote workers, and I'll admit I was skeptical," lead author Melanie Brucks told Scientific American. "Unlike other forms of virtual communication, like phone calls or email, videoconferencing mimics the in-person experience quite well, so I was surprised when we found meaningful differences between in-person and video interaction for idea generation."
Why were pairs using Zoom so much worse at generating innovative ideas? The researchers believe that it has to do with attention. When you're on Zoom, it's hard to look away from both your conversation partner and the little box with your own image. That means those brainstorming over Zoom are less likely to let their attention wander, which likely holds back their creativity.
Or as Scientific American put it: "The new work suggests that daydreaming and gazing around a conference room might enhance thinking during creative pursuits." On Zoom, you can't search your environment for inspiration.
An easy (if partial) fix
The good news is that this explanation also points to an easy fix -- just turn off your camera. This should free you up to move and look around the room, greatly improving your chances of coming up with more good ideas.
Still, Brucks and her fellow researchers are skeptical that switching off the cameras will completely eliminate the disadvantages of remote brainstorming, which means many leaders might want to urge employees back to the office for the idea generation part of the innovation process at least.
If they're anything like my frustrated husband, they'll be thrilled. He raced back to in-person meetings as soon as health restrictions allowed, and still swears there is no replacement for in-person brainstorming. I'll send him this column so he knows he has science on his side.