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The advantages and disadvantages of a work-from-home policy

A new study shows that virtual meetings can affect worker creativity, but that may be the only drawback

Teletrabajo creatividad
Image of an Apple laptop during a work video call via Zoom.Unsplash
Jordi Pérez Colomé

While the covid19 pandemic has become less acute and the need to work entirely from home has receded, telecommuting or remote work seems here to stay, with companies having to weigh the costs and benefits of these changes.

A new study from professors at Columbia and Stanford universities, published this Wednesday in the journal Nature, looks at how virtual meetings can affect the pace and quality of work.

They conclude that while, in general, virtual meetings are like face-to-face meetings, they lack levers for generating creative ideas.

The big difference stems from the forced concentration on the screen in virtual meetings. “By says the scientific article published this Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The article notes that virtual meetings require forced concentration, saying that cognitive focus is reduced to the limited visual range of the screen.

As Melanie Brucks, professor at Columbia University and co-author of the article, explains over email to EL PAIS, “What we found is that, when interacting on video, people look more at the person they are speaking to. This reduced visual focus inhibits the generation of ideas.”

Brucks explains that this is due to the link between visual and cognitive focus.

“When we visually focus on a screen and filter out the periphery, this in turn causes reduced cognitive focus.”

“In other words, when we’re visually tethered to a screen, we’re less likely to mentally wander.”

The creative process therefore works best when the participants do not have to focus their eyes on the screen.

The experiment by Brucks and the rest of the team was carried out in a laboratory and in real-life companies in European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The test consisted of pairing more than 2,000 people in offices and remotely, getting them to brainstorm ideas and then select the most useful ones. The difference in the number of ideas generated was substantial, while the final selection was not.

The researchers checked whether the increased number of ideas generated were simply minor variations on original ideas and found that this was indeed the case. To be sure, they found that in-person meetings spark better and more varied creative ideas.

According to the article, the virtual limitations largely stop there. The reduction in cognitive focus caused by screen use does not hinder all collaborative activities, it explains. That is, “idea generation is often followed by idea selection, which requires a cognitive approach and analytical reasoning,” something that works well across screens.

The authors give an example to understand the lack of key differences beyond creative ideas: the number of words spoken.

To understand the lack of key differences between creative ideas, the authors give ‘number of words spoken’ as an example. That is:

“The number of words spoken did not differ significantly, although virtual groups had fewer speaker changes compared to in-person groups and significantly fewer cross talks,” the article says.

According to the researchers, these types of variables, such as visual connection, which is more complex in virtual environments, do not have significant effects on ideas. They also found no substantial differences when considering how familiar partners were with each other.

It’s not that different really Brucks says it is important to keep in mind that the study overall does not find that much difference between virtual and face-to-face communication.”When we started this project, many people told us that what we were discovering was obvious: of course, video conferencing is bad, it’s just a lower quality version of in-person interaction,” he says.

Telecommuting is actually more like real life than you might imagine, adds Brucks.

“Ironically, while we find that video conferencing slows down idea generation, I think one of the most important demonstrations in this paper is how similar video conferencing and in-person interaction really is. In exploring ‘why’ video conferencing reduces idea generation, we examine many potential ways in which in-person communication and video conferencing may differ.” In doing so, “we discovered that video conferencing and in-person interaction are very similar in many aspects of communication,” he explains.

For example, feelings of connectedness, the number of words spoken, the types of topics discussed (such as personal topics, emotional topics), or social behaviors (such as smiling) all track similarly between in-person and virtual interactions.

“We even found that couples trusted their partner with real money in both in-person and virtual scenarios,” adds Brucks.

In other words: “we’ve created an interface that matches much of the in-person experience. This is quite a technological feat and suggests that video conferencing, in many situations, is not a bad thing.”

The only negative effect of virtual interaction, says Brucks, is in this finding about the generation of ideas.

The number of people in a meeting does, however, affect its results, both in person and virtual: “Research suggests that face-to-face couples outperform the largest face-to-face and virtual groups, and virtual couples outperform the largest virtual groups. Therefore, our recommendation is to brainstorm in pairs and in person, depending on costs,” the article says.

This difference is not definitive for what companies should choose, say the authors, which will depend on more factors.

In terms of how companies faced with the question of having their employees work remotely or in the office might decide, it is notable that virtual meetings have fewer physical requirements than face-to-face meetings, which can generate its own advantages.

“It’s often much cheaper to have remote workers,” says Brucks. At the same time, “innovation is important for a company because it increases profits.”

“Each company will have to decide if the increased creativity is worth the price of seeing them in person. In addition, remote work allows for broader access to talent, and access to talent varies by industry. These factors, along with others, must be weighed when deciding on work-from-home policies.”

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