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Creativity in the Age of Virtual Collaboration

By Leigh Thompson

The shift to remote work can actually help groups generate better ideas — and more of them.

Female figure working virtually

The COVID-19 pandemic put professionals in a box — a virtual one. Overnight, managers and their teams shifted from in-person brainstorming and ideation sessions to those taking place electronically via Zoom, Webex and other online tools. 

In light of the loss of more spontaneous face-to-face connections and interactions, you might assume that these major changes in how we work are taking a large toll on business creativity. One of my most outspoken executive students — a young, data-driven manager at a technology consulting company — seemed to be making that assumption when he asked how I thought virtual work “thwarted” creative processes like those his teams engage in with their clients, such as defining problem scope, exploring solutions, prototyping and testing. 

My answer surprised him: Based on research that I and others have conducted over the past couple of decades, I believe that the shift to remote work actually has the potential to improve group creativity and ideation, despite diminished in-person communication. In this article I will explain why. 


Remembering What Really Drives Creativity

Scholars define creativity as ‘the production of novel and useful ideas’. Novel, in this context, means statistically rare and unique; and useful means that some stakeholders see practical value in the ideas. 

In business, innovation is the realization of creative ideas as products and services. Think of the creative process like a river, starting with the upstream generation of ideas, often seemingly outlandish ones; proceeding to the testing and refinement of certain ideas midstream; and eventually moving downstream to the full development of chosen ideas. 

Virtual collaboration needn’t hinder any of that—and nor is it at odds with the following well-established ideas about what drives creativity.

CREATIVE ABILITY IS NOT FIXED OR INBORN. Creativity is influenced by factors under one’s control. In one study, for example, some participants were told that raw talent and ability determine creative outcomes, while others heard that factors such as motivation and persistence drive creativity. Both groups then completed a creativity task scored by judges who didn’t know what participants had been told. The group that believed creativity was under their control significantly outperformed the other. The conclusion from many such studies is that mindset matters. And you don’t need to collaborate in person to embrace a proactive mindset about creativity — you can do that independently, from anywhere.

Figures working remotely

The shift to remote work actually has the
potential to improve group creativity.


INDIVIDUALS ARE MORE CREATIVE THAN GROUPS. When I ask business leaders in executive workshops who is more creative, groups or individuals, almost no one chooses individuals. It is widely believed that synergy among group members generates more creativity than individuals can. But virtually no research supports this. In fact, most studies have found that ‘per capita’ creativity declines precipitously as group size increases. 

Group dynamics can actually diminish overall creativity by stifling certain voices while amplifying others. In contrast to in-person meetings, where people tend to engage in simultaneous cross talk, virtual meetings make it nearly impossible for more than one person to speak at once. We are forced to focus on individual input, so it’s easier for less vocal participants to be heard than in the physical world, where they are often drowned out. That addresses at least part of the challenge of having all voices represented and heard in creative meetings. 

CONSTRAINTS SPARK CREATIVE THINKING. Working within limits pushes us to solve problems in ways we wouldn’t if given free rein. For example, financial restrictions activate a tendency to think ‘big picture’ and then trim down rather than follow a more organic idea-generation process that can result in a larger price tag. And time pressure often prods more-efficient idea generation. Moreover, imposing communication rules, such as ‘do not explain ideas’, increases creative-idea generation — and groups that are interrupted with brief breaks produce more ideas, as do those that engage in electronic brainstorming (which is considered more constrained than in-person free-for-alls).

Overall, virtual meeting platforms impose more constraints on communication and collaboration than face-to-face settings. For instance, with the press of a button, virtual meeting facilitators can control the size of breakout groups and enforce time constraints; only one person can speak intelligibly at a time; nonverbal signals, particularly those below the shoulders, are diminished; ‘seating arrangements’ are assigned by the platform, not by individuals; and visual access to others may be limited by the size of each participant’s screen. Such environmental restrictions are likely to stretch participants beyond their usual ways of thinking, boosting creativity.


How to Enhance Virtual-Group Creativity

If virtual collaboration doesn’t kill creativity — and can actually boost it — how can teams maximize that upside? Following are some practical suggestions, drawn from the broad body of research on creativity and innovation. These ideas are useful for in-person collaborations, too, but given that virtual business meetings are now ubiquitous and in many organizations have replaced face-to-face conversations, I will focus on the benefits of these tactics for remote creativity.

1. PREVENT PRODUCTION BLOCKING. As noted earlier, social scientists have long known that individuals are better than groups at creative-idea generation. Classic meta-analyses suggest that’s true regarding the quantity and quality of ideas, as do recent empirical
works. Studies have carefully compared the performance of people working independently with that of interactive groups, measuring per-person productivity (typically as creative production percent, based on the volume of ideas per person) and quality of ideas (assessed by independent experts blind to participant identities and experimental hypotheses) over a fixed period. Inevitably, individuals outperform groups.

Several social-psychological factors drive this consistent result. A primary one is production blocking, or anything that interferes with a person’s focus on creative-idea generation, including subtle factors. One is conversation itself, which involves having to listen to others politely. Working remotely requires less of this. With less pressure for constant conversational engagement in virtual communication, people can more easily focus on generating ideas. 

Even so, there’s still a performance aspect to virtual collaboration, with everyone’s face on display; people may expend energy managing how they come across. Take steps to minimize that source of production blocking, such as by reserving large blocks of time for individual work, away from the shared screen.

Figures communicating via computer screen

Most studies have found that creativity declines
precipitously as group size increases.


2. CRUSH CONFORMITY. Excessive like-mindedness destroys creativity. Such conformity occurs when people believe that they must aim behaviour at winning their group’s acceptance. Fortunately, virtual collaboration involves less pressure to conform. That’s partly because the group is less immediately present than in-person groups (yielding fewer cues about acceptance, such as eye contact only among certain members), and partly because of the online disinhibition effect, or the idea that people are more likely to express themselves and not worry about getting others to like them when interacting digitally. It’s true that virtual collaborators are often fully visible to one another and can’t ‘hide’ behind text-only forms of communication like email. However, the disinhibition effect still exerts influence, since many of the politeness rituals of in-person communication, such as vocalizing agreement and engaging in small talk, are no longer present.

3. FACILITATE IDEA EXPRESSION THROUGH ‘BRAINWRITING’. Brainwriting is the more sophisticated cousin of brainstorming. In brainstorming, people throw out ideas in a free-for-all manner, ideally refraining from criticism. The belief is that off-the-cuff ideas might spark truly innovative ones. One problem with brainstorming is that people often self-censor out of concern about the group’s response, as I noted earlier. And even when individuals are willing to speak up, they may not get the floor, given the chaotic flurry of ideas being shared. 

Brainwriting resolves these issues through the simultaneous generation of ideas by individual group members. The group sets aside time for individuals to write down ideas; afterward, they come together to discuss them. But when it’s time to share, in-person settings still induce self-censorship and the impulse to be ‘too nice’ in assessing others’ ideas. 

Virtual communication is ideal for brainwriting, because participants can anonymously contribute to a common virtual whiteboard or shared document without significant group influence. And when they meet to discuss ideas, doing so virtually helps them express their opinions more honestly (again, because of fewer group-acceptance cues). 

4. PRE-EMPT INSIDER-OUTSIDER BIAS. Research suggests that people evaluate ideas from colleagues more harshly than those from outsiders, particularly competitors. They may feel compelled to devalue colleagues’ ideas partly because they fear that the advancement of ideas by group members will lead to their own loss of status within the organization. One solution is to anonymize ideas so that each one can be evaluated independently of its source. In a face-to-face meeting, however, this can be very difficult, especially when ideas are shared on the spot. But the same virtual-communication principle that applies to brainwriting applies here: Digital tools enable people to contribute ideas from a safer distance, without revealing authorship, thus mitigating insider-outsider bias.

5. PROMOTE HIGH-CONSTRUAL THINKING. Research indicates that low-construal thinking results in less creativity than the high-construal variety. Think of low- and high-construal as degrees of focus of a camera lens: Low-construal thinking, like a telephoto lens, emphasizes details; high-construal thinking, the wide-angle lens, captures the bigger picture.

One study found that people think of more creative ideas when they believe they are interacting with someone at a greater physical distance, because this activates higher-construal thought processes (big-picture focus and abstract thinking). Virtual communication inherently involves the perception of greater distance than in-person interactions. You can enhance this by asking each virtual meeting participant to announce their location: “Hello, this is Juliana from Panama,” and so on.

6. FOSTER DIVERSE INTERACTIONS. My research with Psychology Professor Hoon-Seok Choi of Sungkyunkwan University suggests that the presence of a single newcomer can stimulate group creativity, yielding a larger number and variety of ideas. In general,
diversity enhances the creative process. Yet in a typical face-to-face meeting, people sit by their friends and colleagues, often engaging in sidebars or shared nonverbal interactions, which have the unintended consequence of promoting conformity and narrowing creative focus.

In a virtual meeting, you can’t choose your seat, and having sidebar conversations is not nearly as tempting, given the shared screen and risk of accidentally messaging a private thought to everyone. Moreover, the group-breakout function defaults to sorting people randomly. These factors make it more likely that people in virtual settings will interact with participants they don’t know well, boosting creativity.

7. KEEP IDEA VAULTS AND BONEYARDS. Pre-COVID-19, many in-person brainstorming meetings were not recorded, erasing any trace of discarded ideas. That fails to maximize group output, because returning to ideas that were previously suggested increases group performance. Why? Silence is the biggest killer of creative-idea generation; giving voice to ideas (even old ones) spurs new insights. Luckily, chat windows, electronic whiteboards, and other virtual-collaboration tools serve as vaults and ‘boneyards’, memorializing
sessions and making it easier to revisit previously-overlooked ideas.


In closing

None of this is to suggest that virtual communication is a cure-all for addressing creative-collaboration issues, or that managers and their teams should aim to work in their own ‘lighthouses’ whenever possible, shunning face-to-face contact. However, as indicated herein, virtual collaboration does provide some important benefits that many of us didn’t realize or pursue in pre-COVID-19 times. My guess is that our creative output will be all the better for it.

Leigh Thompson is a Professor of Management and Director of the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Her latest book is Negotiating the Sweet Spot: The Art of Leaving Nothing on the Table (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020). This article originally appeared in MIT’s Sloan Management Review.

Six Design Elements of the Emerging Future
By Cory Seeger

The goal of ‘futuring’ is not to predict the future, but to prepare for the possibilities. To rise to this challenge, our response must be human-centred, innovative and radically imaginative. To facilitate this discussion, following are six possible futures we believe will emerge. Each can be consumed individually, or combined with the others to form interesting clusters.

1. Leftover Spaces
Physical spaces will become much more dynamic. Our spaces will adapt and change multiple times a day, responding to new metrics for how we value usage and judge capacity. 

IDEAL CAPACITY NO LONGER MEANS MAXIMUM CAPACITY. In response to increased public health and safety regulations, the max capacity of physical spaces dramatically reduces. Businesses, events and retailers that previously relied on maximizing turnover of guests will fundamentally rethink how to best use the space leftover as occupancy falls.

THE ABILITY TO MONETIZE SPACE TAKES ON MULTIPLE MODELS BASED ON SHIFTING CONSUMER PREFERENCES FOR SAFETY. Concerns like avoiding peak hours, understanding who used the space before you and the intention of a visit influence the design and selling of spaces. Creative utilization models such as charging more for private appointments emerge as alternatives to the standard block of open hours. 

2. Rapid Evolution
Organizations that have the agility and creativity to repurpose their resources — people, infrastructure and offerings — will be more resilient and competitive. 

DESIGNING SHIFTS TO AN EXTREME FOCUS ON THE SHORT TERM. The highly unpredictable future renders any multi-year plan irrelevant. Our plans change every few months, weeks or even days. This creates opportunities for more dynamic pricing and offerings that reflect supply and demand in real time. This requires redesigning how we think about weddings, sporting events, concerts — frankly any large-scale event planned far in advance. 

DE-RISKING THE FUTURE MEANS EXPERIMENTING WITH MULTIPLE FUTURES. The post-pandemic world increases ambiguity for everyone. Past precedent and performance no longer apply as indicators of future success. Creating diversified offerings is necessary for de-risking businesses, and developing a non-linear prototyping mindset is more important than ever. 

3. Permeating Identity
The online versions of ourselves will take on new importance as data collection, interpretation and management have heightened physical significance.

OUR PHYSICAL INTERACTIONS NOW LEAVE DIGITAL FOOTPRINTS. It’s easy to keep track of our own interactions in the world, but trusting the health and safety of others proves tricky. Shareable tracking of connections and relying on concrete data collection
to provide both peace of mind and reassurance is done in the interest of public health and security. Think Internet cookies, but physical. Information such as where we’ve been, what we did, who we met with — all gets tracked and embedded into our digital selves for smarter decision-making and risk assessment.

OUR DIGITAL IDENTITIES POSSESS PHYSICAL SIGNIFICANCE. Looking to lead healthier lifestyles, we take steps to not put ourselves or the people we care about at risk. Our digital selves become much more important as they take a greater role in the choices and actions we make in person. The online data that represents us begins to push out, influencing physical interactions to a much greater extent.

4. Deliberate Adventure
People demand safety and rely on their trusted circles in times of uncertainty, yet they still crave moments of serendipitous discovery. Within safe boundaries, they take calculated risks to explore the unknown. 

RELATIONSHIPS ARE MORE INTENTIONAL AND HIGHLY CURATED. In times of emergency, we prioritize safety and crave comfort in familiarity. Because the stakes are high and missteps are costly, we become more sensitive to taking risks and choose who to interact with more consciously.

ADVENTURE MEANS TRYING AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE IN A SAFE PLACE. Discovery happens through the circle of trust built around ourselves. This circle forms the safety rails that provide the peace of mind to explore the unknown. Within this safe space, individuals within an organization are more influential than the entity itself in nudging consumer behaviour. 

5. Radical Resilience
In the face of uncertainty, the pursuit of optimization and efficiency becomes less relevant, while taking care of ourselves and our immediate surroundings take over as first priority. Technologies of the future will embody care and compassion to enable this value shift.

SUCCESS AND INTIMACY INTERTWINE. The value of leisure and fun grow and possess more advantage in how we tackle difficult challenges as we shift away from the incessant urge for optimization and efficiency. Solitude and observation develop not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights. We realize some things are more important — that the present time and place, and the people here with us, are simply enough.

LOCALITY GROWS AND THRIVES. Local businesses resurge as our attention shifts from the office to our homes and communities, which are now more important than ever. Investing in our immediate neighbourhood means building stronger and more capable communities that can weather any future storms.

6. Asynchronous Rythms
When work and life happen in the same place, balance means switching mindsets rather than changing locations. As work time and family time irreversibly weave together, relationships take on new dynamics, as do the products, services and spaces that serve them.

GENDER ROLES AND EXPECTATIONS RESET. The model where long work hours keep family life secondary, with a strong division of labour, breaks down as families discover the value of spending more time together. As domestic responsibilities gradually redistribute to be more equal opportunities emerge for men to take care of the home and family, while unburdened women share their voice in career settings. Equality at home translates to greater equality overall.

PEOPLE CRAFT WORK-LIFE RHYTHMS ON THEIR OWN TERMS. The notion of standardized hours and working five days a week fades as we spend more time at home — both professionally and privately. The division between work and home is no longer based on where we are physically, but how we spend our time at a given moment. In this world, we are liberated from the collective, synchronous timetable, putting ourselves in charge of personalizing our own work-life rhythm. 

INDIVIDUAL PATTERNS SHAPE OUR CITIES. As our lifestyles become more asynchronous, the ways we use our spaces, products and services dramatically shifts to accommodate families who live together, but work separately — in the same place. Peak hours are no longer a universal truth, but very much a decision that varies from person to person. Reshaping our cities means questioning the default and finding opportunities to cater to this diversity of rhythms.

Cory Seeger is the Environments Design Lead at IDEO Tokyo. 

The complete Emergent Futures report is available at


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