This week, researchers published a paper showing that people generated less creative ideas in video calls than in person meetings. Journalists gobbled it up: SCIENCE SAYS ZOOM IS BAD! Executives seized it as their latest excuse to drag everyone back to the office full-time: YOU CAN’T BE CREATIVE AT HOME!
Not so fast.
Two experiments spanning five countries did show that video calls reduced creativity. Staring at a screen narrows your field of vision and reduces divergent thinking. But…
1. For decision-making, the researchers found that video calls were just as good—and sometimes better—than meeting in person. If you’re making an important choice, you can skip the commute and hop on Zoom. That also gives you the benefit of multimodal communication: you can share ideas in the chat as well as out loud.
2. The researchers titled their paper “Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation,” but their data only show that video calls are worse than face-to-face meetings. They didn’t compare in-person interaction to any other forms of virtual communication. That was an unfortunate decision, because several decades of evidence reveal that when groups meet in person to brainstorm, they generate fewer ideas—and less creative ideas—than those same individuals working alone.
When people are together in the same room, both quality and quantity suffer. Plenty of voices get drowned out during verbal traffic jams (production blocking), some people bite their tongues on their most unconventional ideas (evaluation apprehension), and many people end up jumping on the bandwagon of the person with the most social and political capital (groupthink). The result is conformity instead of diversity of thought.
3. It’s hard to argue with the energy of interacting in person. You don’t want that energy all the time, though. In groups, people generate an abundance of good ideas, but a shortage of great ideas. Working alone, people come up with more brilliant ideas—and more terrible ideas. It’s easy to fall in love with your own ideas, and in groups, you’re more vulnerable to overconfidence—especially if you’re in a position of power or status.
The best of both worlds is intermittent collaboration: alternating between individual idea generation and group idea evaluation. The most creative virtual teams aren’t in touch every hour or even every day. They divide and conquer on deep work and then come together for periods of burstiness, with messages flying back and forth.
In sum, your typical video call probably isn’t great for creativity. But the truth is that your usual face-to-face meetings aren’t very good for it either. It’s not where you interact that matters most—it’s how you interact. It’s not the technology you use that stifles original thinking—it’s the culture you build.