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Is Zoom killing team innovation?

New research published in Nature journal suggests virtual communication has an adverse impact on creativity.

In a laboratory study, 600 people worked in pairs, either virtually or in-person, to come up with new ideas. Judges then rated those ideas according to ingenuity and value.

The research discovered that:

  • In-person meetings generated more – and more creative – ideas than virtual ones.
  • Pairs were not able to share visual cues (from their surroundings) which could spark new ideas. Instead, they tended to focus on their partner on-screen.
  • People tended to move less in virtual pairs. Moving around, or even looking around and using our hands all help to stimulate the creative process.


But it wasn’t all bad news. Whilst fewer ideas were generated, the process of choosing which ideas to pursue was not hindered by virtual working. In fact, preliminary data showed that this evaluation phase might have been more effective on-screen.

What’s going on here, in Team Role terms?

When the pandemic first pushed previously co-located (or in-person) teams into virtual working, many organisations were in survival mode, trying to maintain the status quo and stay afloat. They weren’t necessarily in a position to consider innovation.

In Belbin terms, Implementer behaviours (structure, order, process) came to the fore. In our 2020 Belbin and Virtual Teams survey, many reported higher productivity when working from home. But that didn’t necessarily translate into engagement and creativity. In fact, those with high Resource Investigator behaviours (the role most in need of a changing environment) were amongst the lowest in their rate of satisfaction with virtual working.

The initial creative phases of a project require Plant and Resource Investigator Team Roles. In order to be effective, people with these roles need freedom from constraint – the ability to change their environment so that inspiration can strike. This might be as simple as moving from a desk to a meeting room with a flipchart, or even walking and talking on the phone. 

From this study, it would appear that being tied to the screen acts as another creative restraint.

The ‘decision’ phase (choosing an idea to take forward) requires an entirely separate skillset – impartial analysis and shrewd judgement. In Belbin terms, a Monitor Evaluator. For this kind of behaviour, the same environmental rules do not apply.

What do we do about it?

We still have a lot to learn about the impact of virtual and hybrid working on team behaviours. It is worth pointing out that some organisations have been successfully working and innovating in a virtual environment since before the pandemic. Strategies for mitigating the negative effects of remote working include better technology (such as virtual reality) or even picking up the phone, as 2019 as that may sound…

First and foremost, we need to understand the Team Roles required for innovation – or any project stage – and the working environment needed for each person to use their strengths to best effect.

We might not always be able to work to the ideal, but knowing the shortcomings of the situation can go a long way towards solving any difficulties that arise.

The Belbin reports help individuals and teams understand where they can best contribute, and enable managers to create the optimum conditions to cultivate those behaviours.

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