​As if the endless muting and freezing, the need for shelves stocked with high-profile literature, and the constant fear of a co-worker wandering across the screen without clothes on weren’t enough to worry about, researchers have found that Zoom stifles creativity.

Face-to-face meetings produced more ideas, and more creative ideas, compared to videoconference discussions, according to lab experiments and a field study at a company with offices around the world.

While the benefits of Zoom and other video conferencing tools have made them indispensable in the pandemic, research suggests that a heavy reliance on technology comes at a cost to creative thinking.

“It’s really important to have multiple creative ideas to draw from, and having a bigger pot of creative ideas will increase your chances of success,” said Melanie Brucks, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University in New York. .

Brucks and his colleague Jonathan Levav of Stanford University began their investigation before the pandemic when managers said they were struggling to innovate with remote workers. Brucks was skeptical that video conferencing was a factor, suspecting that major global teams’ online coordination difficulties might be to blame instead.

To find out, the researchers recruited more than 600 volunteers who were paired up to tackle a creativity task either together in the same room or virtually on Zoom.

Pairs had five minutes to come up with creative uses of a Frisbee or bubble wrap and one minute to select their best idea. Independent judges judged that turning a Frisbee into a plate was less creative than using it to knock fruit off a tree, while using bubble wrap to send Morse code messages was more creative than use to protect a baby. Overall, those who worked on Zoom had 20% fewer ideas than those who met face-to-face.

The same effect was apparent in the real world. In a field study, researchers analyzed ideas for new products generated by 1,490 engineers for a multinational company. The engineers, who were in Finland, Hungary, India, Israel and Portugal, were randomly paired and given about an hour to brainstorm products, either in person or via Webex video conference. They then selected their best idea.

write in nature, researchers report that engineers produced more ideas, and more innovative ideas, when they worked face-to-face. “Not only do they generate more creative ideas, but their best idea is better,” Brucks said. Virtual teams were just as good at selecting the best ideas from a group as those meeting in person.

However, things can easily go wrong. For the field study, the engineers gave their best when brainstorming in the office. But the company’s Polish arm held its idea generation session at a hotel, which led to “notable concern over the hotel’s catering coffee and cookie station”.

Other lab experiments found a link between greater creativity and the number of people looking around the room and noticing unusual props, like a skeleton poster and a bowl of lemons. Bruck suspects that on Zoom calls, people focus on the screen and the person’s face, a flicker that limits creative thinking.

“Visual focus is an important component of cognitive focus. When you’re focused on the screen and filtering out the rest of the environment, it affects how you approach the task,” Brucks said. “It’s particularly bad for creativity because it inhibits broader exploration.”

The results give food for thought as businesses grapple with returning to the office. Video conferencing helps people collaborate across time zones and can reduce the need to travel. Meanwhile, it’s unclear if the impact on creativity holds true for larger teams.

Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership at Northwestern University in Illinois, said the impact on the real world “could be enormous,” causing a division of labor between face-to-face and virtual meetings that could “reshape into permanent office and working hours”. But he urged companies to be careful because while virtual meetings are cheaper than in-person meetings, they can still be more profitable.

Asked for advice, Brucks said people could save more creative tasks for in-person meetings or turn off their camera when coming up with ideas. “I think it unlocks more creative thinking,” she said.

This article was written by Ian Sample Science, editor of The Guardian and has been legally licensed through Industry Dive Content market. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].