Creative work and process work

Brandon Donnelly highlights a recent Nature study that found that virtual communication curbs creative idea generation:

COVID-19 accelerated a decade-long shift to remote work by normalizing working from home on a large scale. Indeed, 75% of US employees in a 2021 survey reported a personal preference for working remotely at least one day per week, and studies estimate that 20% of US workdays will take place at home after the pandemic ends. Here we examine how this shift away from in-person interaction affects innovation, which relies on collaborative idea generation as the foundation of commercial and scientific progress… we demonstrate that videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus. Our results suggest that virtual interaction comes with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation.

This intuitively tracks, doesn’t it? The process-oriented work we do, work like standing meetings, one-on-ones, compliance tasks, reports, etc., all of this can often be tackled even better through virtual communication like Zoom, Teams, etc. But the creative work, creative sprints to take an initiative or program from ideation to plan to execution, that work happens so much more naturally in person. Why? Because we’re metaphorically raising our vision up, rather than lowering our vision to focus on a camera or a screen.

“[W]hen it comes to selecting which idea to pursue,” the study also notes, “we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective (and preliminary evidence that they may be more effective) than in-person groups…” Creative ideation happens alone or in groups in person, but process work happens best remotely—something like that.