Junior Faculty Awardee Profile: Melanie Brucks, PhD
Your research is on the impact of remote working on team communication; how has the pandemic affected your work?
It was just crazy. Back in 2015, when I began studying this, I had no idea how relevant things were going to become. At that time, some people were transitioning to more virtual interaction, but I think that no one even considered that it would be possible to move everything to be completely remote. Now, after a year of remote work, when people say that in-person stuff is dead and we're not going to have in-person education or work anymore, I think that's ridiculous and hyperbolic. That being said, I think people are realizing that we have created a new normal that will be a hybrid of the two. We know that there are times when being virtual is convenient, and we just accelerated what was inevitably going to be this hybrid life that we have.
This really changed how I think about my research. People are now giving more careful consideration to justify in-person interaction, when this used to be the default. It's no longer a question of virtual vs. in-person interaction, it's when and how we invest our resources. My research finds that being face-to-face is best for generative and expansive tasks. However, there are cases where we could — or even should — actually stay online. This suggests that virtual interaction isn’t unilaterally worse than in-person interaction, and we need to think carefully about which tasks would benefit from in-person interaction and when a Zoom meeting would work just fine — or even better!
What can you say about the hybrid model?
I haven't been able to study it in the lab, because I can't bring people into a space where they're closer than six feet of contact. But we know that what is really hard about virtual interaction is conversation coordination. To further investigate this, we’re running a study that is solely online. We’re looking at dyads versus a group of four. We find that conversation coordination becomes increasingly more challenging as you have more people trying to decide who's going to talk next. This is because, in larger groups, we use eye contact to determine who's going to speak next. If everyone's looking at a person, that gives them the floor. We can't determine that online. I can see if you're looking in my general direction, but if we have four or five people on the screen, I don't know who you're looking at.
My research finds that being face-to-face is best for generative and expansive tasks. However, there are cases where we could – or even should – actually stay online.
Difficulty with conversation coordination increases as group size increases online, and if you have a couple of people who are in person and a few people connecting virtually, it is going to be very hard to determine when you can jump in. I have had this experience, even before COVID, during a research meeting. Some would Zoom in, and while we're all interacting in person, they remain relatively silent because they are missing these coordination cues. Only time will tell if there will be ways to mitigate those challenges. There is new technology looking at how to do those kinds of things.
Another thing that I've been thinking about is how normative it has been to use video when virtually meeting with others. Before COVID happened, people had the option to turn the video off, but now that video is our only way to connect with other people, we feel more compelled to keep our video on all the time. I think that this can be a problem. With video, you feel so zoomed in and focused in on that person. This can hurt more generative, expansive processes. On the other hand, it can help focus, so in my classes, I always tell people to keep their video on. It keeps them accountable and they're more engaged in the class. But, when my students do idea generation, I give them permission to turn off their video. My students found this to be so liberating, to be released from this pressure that they had before.
As we create a hybrid environment, I think that we need to be more intentional in reestablishing norms for virtual interaction. We don’t think about how keeping our video on affects us; we just assume that we should. My research suggests that subtle differences like videos off or on can actually affect how we think.
How has your experience of teaching been with this lens of your research? What are some aspects of remote life that you hope that we hold on to and what would you be happy to see leave behind?
Relating to the research that I conducted before COVID, virtual work comes with an increase in efficiency. We find that people are better decision makers when they're doing video calls, and we should continue to use video if the goal is to arrive at a conclusion. Ironically, people talk about Zoom fatigue a lot, but we forget how exhausting it is to have back-to-back meetings in person — especially if they are unproductive and drag on (we’ve all experienced this!). I hope that we continue to use video conferencing when it suits the task at hand.
We don’t think about how keeping our video on affects us; we just assume that we should. My research suggests that subtle differences like videos off or on can actually affect how we think.
I also hope we keep recording and sharing meetings; I like the increased accessibility that this affords. Now, if you are unable to physically attend a conference, you are still able to participate. We could have been doing that all along.
I think the main thing that I miss — and I'm sure everyone would agree — is the spontaneity of interaction. With remote work, everything has to be planned, and the creativity research confirms that this is a problem. We’re missing the water cooler talk, where we make spontaneous connections that influence our work. I’m really looking forward to interacting with my colleagues again. Without those chance encounters, you miss out on new perspectives.
To what extent have you studied collaboration tools like Slack? Have they factored into your work?
I have been thinking about this. Recently, I have been really interested in language and creativity, and how the way in which we speak and communicate with another person can influence our thought process. For example, we communicate differently when we’re in person than we do on email or on Slack or on text. In email, the length of sentences is different; the complexity and the completeness can vary. If you’re using Slack, it’s here's a thought, here's a thought, here's a thought, and there is more synchronous back-and-forth feedback. I think that the language norms of these different platforms could matter a lot. I think we're more ambiguous and less complete in our thinking when we do things on Slack or IM.
Ambiguity is helpful because it allows you flexibility to go in different directions; you can learn not only from the other person, but their subjective perception of what you wrote. If you actually don't define something clearly, that can enable a broader definition to emerge from a conversation. It gives you more space and time to nail down exactly what you're talking about. So, in some ways, the limitations of Slack may be beneficial. I'm curious to look at whether a two-way chat could be a better medium for a generative conversation than email or even in person. It allows for more incomplete thoughts and more room for interpretation.
Does the idea of introversion or extraversion come into play in your work on idea generation?
I haven’t personally looked at that, but there is research that looks at fear of evaluation or, more generally, social anxiety. When you have more distant channels of interaction, like Slack, you're more likely to have more equal participation. With chat in larger groups, you can have participation from the people who might not be willing to interrupt or interject, or those who don't necessarily want to change the direction of a whole conversation. A few people can share their thoughts in a way that wouldn’t be so disruptive. In general, you don't want one person to dominate. If you have more equal participation, you will have different types of content being provided from different perspectives. There is some really interesting research on that.
Anecdotally, in my experience, larger groups are easier to manage on Zoom. This experience might depend on whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, because a lot of my extroverted friends find it harder. They get energy from being in front of the class and seeing everyone's faces looking at them. There is a lot of research in mimicry and in emotional contagion, where you build off of each other's emotions — we still need to explore if these things are affected by virtual interaction.
We found some really interesting results comparing in-person and Zoom conversations. We found out that people on Zoom stay closer connected in their conversation. As they generate ideas, they might slowly depart but the departure is close to the prior topic.
Are there any other projects or studies that you would like to share?
A lot of my time has been spent completing my project looking at in-person versus virtual work. It has the potential to help inform a lot of policy decisions. In the last couple of months, CEOs like Jack Dorsey have said that their employees could be online forever, that they didn’t need to be in a particular location to work. And so, as all these policy decisions are being made, I want to make sure that this research is out there to inform those decisions.
Generally speaking, I think that it’s okay to have virtual work, as long as there are opportunities to get together for these generative practices. Even if it's just one day a week, or one day a quarter, that people come in, they can come together and have conversations. And, in between, you can actually leverage the benefit of having virtual, efficient meetings which facilitate decision making.
I have also been looking at language use over virtual platforms and in person. There is a tool to determine how much people's language branches out. Some terms are semantically connected, like the words cat and dog, but some words, like dog and snail, are less so. Using semantic networks, you can determine how closely focused a conversation is; do people stick to one topic, or do they branch out?
We found some really interesting results comparing in-person and Zoom conversations. We found out that people on Zoom stay closer connected in their conversation. As they generate ideas, they might slowly depart but the departure is close to the prior topic. With the in-person condition, people start off in the same spot, but then they branch out more and more and more, and so, by the end of the conversation they're much farther past the initial seed idea. This semantic focus we find with Zoom fits the idea that it's more efficient, because you’re less likely to have non sequiturs. So that was a really cool finding that supports our previous research.
Are there any insights that you have gained from your students in the remote teaching context?
I have been so impressed by how well students have adjusted. When we went virtual, it was right before a prototyping workshop that I would normally do in our design lab. We have pipe cleaners and cotton balls and other fun things to use to build quick little prototypes. One example was giving them five minutes to generate a prototype for a business card that can function as fashion. When we had to do this virtually, I was so worried that they wouldn’t have access to any of these materials. I should have known that so much of creativity is resourcefulness and ingenuity, especially when you don’t have the things you normally would use. I actually found that their prototypes were more creative than they might have been if they were in the design lab. I was just so impressed. The students really made the best out of the situation and brought their passion and effort online.