Brain power

Innovation is more likely when we work face-to-face

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

As the pandemic forced so many of our usual activities online, many pondered whether the virtual platforms had affected our activities. Indeed, data suggests that while remote working was good for business-as-usual tasks, it was less effective for innovation that still relies so heavily on physical proximity.

Research1 from Cornell suggests it’s not so much the means of interacting that matters as it is our orientation when doing so. The researchers suggest that sitting face-to-face with someone rather than shoulder-to-shoulder greatly enhances our ability not just to innovate but also to learn.

Problem solving

Across a number of experiments, participants were able to solve visual and spatial problems more effectively when they were watching a solution being demonstrated face-to-face than when they were watching it next to the model.

The researchers suggest that we’re best able to learn and engage with others when we can see not only the hands of our colleagues but also their eyes, gaze, and facial movements as these communicate invaluable social information about the task.

“This shared mental perspective might be more important for some types of learning than sharing a common visual perspective,” they explain. “Face-to-face interaction might facilitate creativity and innovation rather than strict mimicry of the teacher.”

The authors suggest that learning any kind of visuospatial task requires us to adopt the perspective of our teacher so that we can see the world through their eyes. The new findings suggest, however, that it might also be crucial that we can actually see their eyes.

Imitation game

The authors build on past studies, which show that it’s often easier to imitate the movements of our instructors when we can see what they see. When we move from that 0-degree position to a 180-degree position, however, our brains must employ a form of mental rotation to try and understand the movements of our instructor from this opposite perspective. As a result, this should, in theory at least, make learning harder, but that wasn’t the case.

“Remarkably, the simple act of sitting across from someone can help overcome limitations in shared visual perspective,” the researchers explain. “Face-to-face learning overrode the inherent difficulty of taking another’s visual perspective.”

The researchers point out that the participants weren’t successful in all ways when learning face-to-face, as they appeared to imitate less faithfully than their peers who were not head-on to their tutor. This didn’t seem to diminish their ability to achieve their goal, however, as they were both faster and more creative as they were able to go beyond what their tutor recommended.

“They weren’t as good at mimicking, but there’s a benefit to that because it facilitated discovery,” the researchers explain. “A social perspective—looking at people and where they look—allowed children and adults to become better learners at the condition that should have been the most challenging.”

Article source: Innovation Is More Likely When We Work Face-To-Face.

Header image source: Tim Gouw on Unsplash.


  1. Ransom, A., LaGrant, B., Spiteri, A., Kushnir, T., Anderson, A. K., & De Rosa, E. (2022). Face-to-face learning enhances the social transmission of information. Plos One, 17(2), e0264250.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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  1. Interesting Adi to see this research about face to face interaction. It would be interesting to know how this changes let us say if you were doing a face to face interaction via a Teams/Zoom call. Looking at the way things are there are likely to be more of these going forward. One option is to encourage teacher and learner (s) to set aside a day to do this, or as the technology gets better to use a virtual immersive world (metaverse) to do this form of workplace training.

    1. Hi Andrew. Yes, it seems that much of the problem revolves around the poor job Zoom/Teams do in terms of conveying the non-verbal aspects of communication that are so important in both conveying information and building relationships. That they also tend to revolve around scripted rather than spontaneous interactions also doesn’t help.

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