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Virtual meetings might be more comfortable, but they produce fewer ideas, study finds

“Our results suggest that there is a unique cognitive advantage to in-person collaboration, which could inform the design of remote work policies,” said researchers.
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Story at a glance

  • A new study found people who conducted virtual meetings produced fewer total ideas, including less creative ones. 

  • In a virtual setting, people struggled to make eye contact and contribute to discussions, weakening communication. 

  • Virtual work is set to continue in the U.S., with one estimate suggesting 20 percent of workdays will be supplied from home after the coronavirus pandemic ends. 

Most Americans have transitioned to working from home over the last two years, specifically moving traditional in-person meetings to virtual spaces. Though it gives employees greater flexibility, new research has found it also comes at the expense of creativity. 

Researchers studied roughly 1,500 engineers to understand how they worked in a teleconference setting in comparison to in-person. Their results were published in Nature and found that teams who worked virtually generated significantly fewer total ideas than those who worked in-person, including fewer creative ideas. They concluded that virtual communication, “constrains thinking relative to-in person pairs.” 

One major downside to virtual interaction is eye contact, with researchers finding that when two individuals look at each other’s eyes on screen, neither end up looking directly at each other. That could affect communication coordination between employees. 

That speaks to another hurdle with virtual meetings, with researchers finding those paired in a virtual setting struggled to decide who should speak next and when. Teams working virtually reported struggling more with communication coordination, resulting in fewer people chiming into discussions and significantly less crosstalk.  


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However, researchers also found that teams working virtually ended up being more selective about which ideas to pursue, suggesting that a virtual setting made people more effective at decision making. 

“Our results suggest that there is a unique cognitive advantage to in-person collaboration, which could inform the design of remote work policies,” said researchers. 

Though these results point to virtual meetings being less productive in terms of idea generation, researchers also noted that other factors like the cost of commuting, real estate and the potential to expand a company’s talent pool, are all important to consider. 

Virtual work reduces the need for companies to host a physical space for employees, can allow reduced salaries for employees in lower cost of living areas and reduce business travel expenses too.  

Despite these results, working from home is likely to stick around, as a research paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) concluded that 20 percent of full workdays will be supplied from home even after the coronavirus pandemic ends. Prior to COVID-19, only about 5 percent of workdays took place at home. 

NBER found that most workers welcome the option to work from home one or more days per week, with some even willing to accept pay cuts of 7 percent on average just to have the option.  

That’s consistent with research conducted by Pew Research Center that found roughly 6 in 10 U.S. workers who say their jobs can be done from home are doing so all or most of the time.  

Many companies realize their employees’ preferences and are moving forward with some balance of in-person work and remote working options. This includes tech company Microsoft, which announced it would be requiring employees to return to its Washington state-based offices by March in a hybrid work environment. Most Microsoft employees will be able to work from home up to 50 percent of the time.  

“We know there’s not a singular solution to how people work best, which is why we believe flexibility should be at the forefront of our evolving hybrid workplace,” said Microsoft, in a company blogpost.   


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