Times, Places and Spaces: Budgeting the creative costs of virtual meetings

During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings became an integral part of a wide variety of workplaces— from participating in group calls and presentations to enjoying socially-distanced drinks with colleagues at the end of the day. For many of these businesses, a hybrid approach (some combination of working from home and returning to the office) has become an attractive prospect, supporting staff wellbeing whilst successfully maintaining products and services. However, doing business virtually has its own implications, particularly regarding the organic creativity and ideas that sustain in-person meetings. In this article, we will discuss the potential pitfalls of video conferences and suggest ways to mitigate them technologically, in order to get the most out of your meetings.

A recent study, conducted by professors from both Columbia and Stanford University’s business schools, concluded that “in-person teams operate in a fully shared physical space, whereas virtual teams inhabit a virtual space that is bounded by the screen in front of each member”, and that this confinement led to a higher degree of concentration from meeting participants. Whilst this might sound like a benefit, the result is that “virtual interaction uniquely hinders idea generation”, as “videoconferencing groups generate fewer creative ideas than in-person groups due to narrowed visual focus”. This issue does not impact the effectivity of choosing ideas with which to move forward, but can severely limit the total ideas generated within a meeting. If most or all your meetings are conducted online, the idea drought can be pervasive and challenging. The key problem is that “in person, team members typically share visual cues from their environment — and each other — that can spur ideas”— so, how can we replicate this through technology in a hybrid workplace?

Firstly, video backgrounds can be a simple and effective tool through which your employees can diversify their focus, leading to a more dynamic and stimulating environment. In one Harvard Business Review survey, 60% of respondents indicated a preference in the video backgrounds that they were shown; this was ranked as more important (in terms of perceived credibility, authenticity, and innovation) than the clothing type or colour of the speaker. The most popular choice, showing the room behind the speaker, is one way to incorporate some creativity back into the static video frame. Including some practical, business appropriate décor, such as potted plants, bookshelves, or wall hangings, can allow for a broader array of visual input, providing more visual stimuli for meeting attendees. However, you should avoid the “blur my background” function wherever possible, and steer clear of humorous filters and backgrounds— the former provides very little inspiration, and the latter is generally received poorly and considered inappropriate in a business setting.

Additional provocations for ideas can be offered by breaking up your online meetings with movement, visual stimulation, and prompts. Sitting completely still for an hour, especially whilst focusing on a screen, can be mentally and physically draining. Offering a break in which participants can turn off their cameras and move around their space is a quick and easy way to change the tone, and allow your staff to recharge. The screen sharing capability of online meeting software can also be utilised for more than just presentation slides; consider streaming a short video, a piece of music, or perhaps a light-hearted piece of good news to boost the mood. Furthermore, whiteboard functionality allows you to present discussions visually, encouraging meeting participants to contextualise what has  been shared with different sensory input, and perhaps add to it in ways that they had not previously reflected on.

Another important question to ask is: does your meeting need video at all? The software is invaluable for most of us, but not every conversation requires it. An audio-only call, allows your staff to move around as they wish, interact with their environment without distracting others, and experience whichever forms of sensory input best stimulate their brain. If you are looking for a more materially collaborative approach, sharing a cloud-based document alongside an audio call can permit participants to record ideas and input as they react to the meeting in real time, creating a dynamic and fluid record— like traditional meeting minutes, these can be referred back to easily for future reference.

Regardless of software, some small pieces of technological house-keeping can also protect creativity by avoiding interruptions to the meeting. If there are numerous attendees or people will be joining the call at different times, they should be muted upon entry by the host, so that nobody loses their train of thought due to disruptions. Desktop notifications should also be muted, for similar reasons.

With the novelty of virtual meetings having long since worn off, supporting your workers in the hybrid workplace with proactive practices is a necessity for getting the most out of your meetings. As the world adapts to the modern workplace and hybrid work remains commonplace, keeping employees engaged can bring levels of collaboration and creativity that will serve your company in years to come.