Virtual meetings save on travel costs and time out of the office compared to face-to-face meetings, but, according to a new study, there is a hidden price to pay: creativity.
Last year, The Meetology Group, a meeting design and behavioral research company based in the U.K., went looking for an answer to this question: “Does meeting face–to-face improve creativity compared to virtual meetings?” To find out, it designed a research study to measure the creative ideas generated by people interacting in three meeting environments: face-to-face, via videoconference, and on the phone.
The company set up a “Meetology Laboratory” on the show floor at IMEX, an exhibition for meetings and incentives in Frankfurt, Germany,in May 2012, and got 104 delegates to take part during the three-day event. Participants were asked to worked in pairs on one of three creativity tasks—coming up with unusual uses for cardboard boxes, thinking of improvements to a toy, or imagining the implications of a fanciful idea (that clouds had strings attached to them). The pairs worked on their ideas in one of three settings: face–to-face across a desk, on the phone (headset) unable to see one another, or via video screen and a headset.
The researchers analyzed the results in terms of the quantity, quality, and variety of the ideas generated over a three-minute period. They also asked participants to complete a questionnaire about their experience during the task.
Number of creative ideas generated:The participant pairs working in the virtual environments (video and phone) came out statistically equal. However, the face-to-face pairs on average generated 30 percent more ideas than the virtual pairs.
Quality of Ideas generated:The quality of an idea was determined by its originality (if an idea was relevant but few respondents suggested it, it scored high on originality), as well as the variety of ideas generated. While the ideas coming from the face-to-face pairs had more originality and more variety than the virtual pairs, the differences “did not reach statistical significance;” according to the report, they only “approached significance.” In both cases, the size of the effect of the face-to-face environment was termed “moderate.”
The results, the report says, “demonstrate a consistent benefit of face-to-face meetings on creative problem-solving ability.” However, it could not support any conclusions about why this was the case. In the questionnaire about their experience during the experiment, researchers asked participants to assess whether it was more enjoyable to work face-to-face than virtually, and whether it made them feel more or less enthusiastic, competent, or tense. They found no significant differences among the three meeting environments. “This seems to suggest that face-to-face meetings increase creativity,” the study concludes, “not because participants have a better psychological experience during these meetings, but due to some other process. Reasons behind this benefit should be explored more fully.”
Jon Bradshaw, The Meetology Group CEO, believes the meetings industry can learn much from the world of psychology and hopes to continue this research into creativity and meetings. “How people behave is directly related to the outcome of the meeting, and our team found this experiment fascinating to undertake. Whilst we in the industry argue that you can’t beat face-to-face meetings, here is now some proof to that argument. However, this experiment left us with questions as well as answers and we look forward to working with IMEX to dig even deeper into those new issues that it raised.”
The Meetology Group conducted its Meetology Laboratory at IMEX with support from the Professional Convention Management Association Education Foundation, IMEX Group, the Dubai Convention Bureau, and Barbican, a London convention venue.