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As two tenure-track faculty members in the winter of 2020, we were under pressure to keep our individual research and writing programs active during the isolation of the pandemic. To feel less alone, we started to meet weekly on Zoom to write together and support each other’s projects.
During each two- to three-hour session, we would begin with some catching up and then set goals for our writing time. After that, we’d leave our cameras on while we worked, ending about 20 minutes before our time was up to talk about our progress. We’ve done this consistently since then as our schedules allow.
The meetings have been very rewarding and have provided social rewards for our writing progress. Yet, some months into them, we began to wish that, despite our working a long distance from each other, we could write together in person.
With the support of our departments, we decided to plan a short writing retreat, where we would travel from Canada and the southern United States to be in the same place. Our goal was to work through some difficult projects each of us had—for one of us, an article that had been rejected, and for the other, a longer-term book planning project. We also wanted to intersperse work on those projects with some downtime to take in an exhibit relevant for each of our teaching specializations.
We’ve now done this once a year for two years, and we have noticed a significant difference in the quality of the in-person meetings and the breakthroughs they produce. While we could effectively catch up online, we noticed that to brainstorm about larger projects, it was easier to be in the same physical space to discuss research. Namely, in-person meetings allow more creativity in “the room where it happens.”
You may have noticed something similar after attending your first in-person conference after the pandemic hiatus. Social media posts after such meetings have illustrated people’s shared experiences: they celebrate connections, catching up with friends and colleagues, and eating meals together. They reference the freedom and benefits of making human connections when agendas are not completely fixed. They reaffirm why as academics we should be aware of the extra value that being in person together brings to a meeting when we plan our work and make strategic decisions about it.
Creativity and Different Meeting Modalities
Human cognitive skills evolved when online communication did not exist, and it has been argued that even email challenges our ability to tend our social connections and prioritize work effectively. That partly explains why in-person communication feels very different. Sharing the space with others allows our brains to receive much more nonverbal data during the communication process. The internal world of another person is more evident and accessible than if they remain an icon or avatar on your screen.
For instance, someone’s body language—their gestures and positioning—reveals how they may be feeling. Based on such information, we make decisions about how to communicate more effectively with one another. People often refer to their intuition or sixth sense—they just have a feeling about the other person that helps them to determine how to communicate with them. Can we joke? Can we trust one another? Do we need to be particularly delicate today? Do our conversation partners understand what we are talking about? If in-person communication feels more effective, that’s because it often is.
Virtual meetings provide fewer cues as to how the person is doing. Our online communications skills are surely improving, but we can’t use our intuition the same way as during in-person interactions. Of course, on the plus side, videoconferences significantly reduce the distance and time we have to travel. But moving all academic work to online platforms has also proved unsustainable and exhausting, and an examination of some of the mechanics of this on a personal level is worthwhile.
When we interact only through online video, we subtly modify our behaviors. For example, we limit our motions in order to keep our faces relatively stable on the screen. We might intentionally gesture into the range of the camera or divide our attention between the chat and the screen. In particularly high-stakes videoconferences, that can become even more performative: I look into my camera to give the impression of looking right at you. But in doing so, I lose my view of your eyes.
And in a setting with many different participants on their own video feeds, we might constantly be asking ourselves, “Where should I be looking?” or “How does this look?” or—conscious of our own appearance and expressions—“How do I look?” For those of us who are not used to watching ourselves “perform” in this way, it feels unnatural. In fact, some experts have argued that our creativity is limited when we are self-conscious in this way, as the attention paid to ourselves is attention away from the subject of the discussion.
Our perception of others is also altered. We take in less information about the person whom we are speaking with, which more readily allows for miscommunication, projection and even irritation. Most people look up, down or off to one side when remembering, concentrating on a new idea or visualizing something. That ambient gazing “out the window” creates space for new ideas. In contrast, watching ourselves while feeling conscious about our appearances is exhausting.
Finally, a virtual meeting room is a less conceptually open space for brainstorming. Most meetings online are structured and goal oriented—with little time spent on small talk, getting refreshments together or walking in together—the times when we unconsciously let our real emotional states show a bit more. We have less downtime; breaks are nearly always eliminated from virtual meetings, or, if taken, they occur away from other participants.
All this can feel more efficient but is actually less holistic; small talk is in some ways large talk, where big new ideas are born. Questions and answers are often shallower in virtual formats, since consciousness of time passing can be heightened. For this reason, it takes much longer to get to know someone you work with only in virtual spaces, and it’s more challenging to establish deeper trust.
Finally, the stark end time of a Zoom call does not allow the meandering discovery process its full time and space. The urgency of moving on to other meetings or parts of your work will truncate the thinking you might be doing in dialogue with another mind.
How have these observations played out in our own academic work?
We found that the creativity—and thus productivity—unlocked during our in-person writing experiences is exponentially richer than in our online sessions. Even if we plan the in-person meetings in advance and schedule our working time, we never know where and how the breakthroughs with challenging bottlenecks or projects will happen. During our physical time together, we keep asking questions and exploring each other’s answers. Sometimes, a new orientation or solution comes immediately, while sometimes it emerges only after a long time—in one of our attempts to explain something, for instance, or from the other person’s casual observations. When we’re together in person, we’re also more authentic with one another. This unexpected component of deepened interactions is not fully duplicable in Zoom, even within the same friendship between colleagues.
We know that not everyone has the time for this kind of dedicated writing together or the freedom from caregiving duties or the money to do this kind of travel. But we hope that knowing the benefits of such deeper communication might inspire you to consider a different version of our writing retreat: a meeting with a local colleague off the campus, a half-day writing retreat with a friend at a coffee shop or a monthly meeting of a small group of people who all work on different aspects of the same topic. Or you might want to plan certain strategically important meetings in person.
We academics tend to think of our research or writing as work we need quiet alone time to accomplish. But even if we write primarily alone, the quality of our work becomes richer when we communicate about it with an empathetic colleague. Just as difficult conversations or crucial team meetings can be more effective when all parties are together in a room, our writing projects blossom when they are shared with others on a walk or in a cafe or another shared space.
Research requires creative activities like making connections, storytelling or finding multiple solutions for a problem. And the more we practice those skills face-to-face with others, discovering how they approach our challenges or similar ones, the better our results will be.