There is no shortage of digital platforms that enable us to have ‘meetings’ with colleagues, clients and contacts anywhere in the world. From video conferencing tools like Google Hangouts, Skype and Facetime, to chat and content sharing functions such as Slack and Yammer, there is no doubt that technology is facilitating increasing global connectivity.
But despite its apparent time and cost efficiencies, retaining a commitment to and a culture of face-to-face meetings is essential to everything from building long-term, productive working relationships, to – in some situations – maintaining sanity.
The value of face to face relations
There are a number of arguments why business meetings are a waste of time: attendees lose interest; they start and end late; not everyone gets a chance to speak; and, for a global company they can be expensive.
In terms of cost however, there is research that offers a rebuttal. An Oxford Economics study provides clear evidence that spend on business travel directly leads to an increase in both corporate revenue and profits. It found that every dollar invested in business travel results in $12.50 in added revenues and $3.80 in new profits. It also showed that if business travel were to be cut altogether, corporate profits would drop 17 per cent in the first year.
This is make a compelling case for investing in face to face meetings from a quantative ROI perspective. But what of the qualitative impact of either committing to a culture of face to face meetings, or sidelining it?
We’re more than a voice
In the world of communications, having the opportunity to work and interact with a colleague or a client in person can have a huge impact on the productivity of a relationship, and the success of a project. According to Straus and McGrath in their 1994 paper for the Journal of Applied Psychology, the type of communication – in person or digital – is likely to affect outcomes. They find that,
“Where there is a need for the expression of emotions, when tasks require coordination and timing among member’s activities… or with tasks that require consensus…, face-to-face communications are likely to be more effective compared to computer mediated devices.”
Consider a crisis situation that requires the support of team members and participants across different offices and geographies. Where complex interaction is required, when tasks and decisions are complex and when there is a need to respond quickly, having an understanding of how individual members of the team work, interact and will respond to situations is crucial.
Face-to-face meetings afford individuals the opportunity to evaluate and judge the integrity, competencies, and skills of other participants and leaders in ways that are not possible over a digital communication mediums, according to Wilson, Straus & McEvily in ‘Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes’.
Face-to-face meetings give participants the opportunity to engage both verbal and non-verbal behavior that can’t be captured on digital interfaces - “you can’t see someone frowning on a conference call” comments Dr. Richard D. Arvey, a psychologist and professor with the National University of Singapore. Nor on a video conference can you necessarily capture the dynamics of the group – for example, reading one member’s expression while another is talking.
While Dr. Arvey’s comment is specific to tele and not video conference, there is a case to be made that the opportunity to read nuance of expression, reaction and especially sense of humour is lost over a digital medium. Dr. Carlos Ferran, Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems at Pennsylvania State University, studies how technology mediated communications differ from face-to-face communications. He finds that “it’s harder to follow cues such as expressions on people’s faces in two dimensions.”
Of course, some of these habits and insights are built over many weeks and months, even years of working in person with others – however, even one face to face engagement will play a significant role at building a solid relationship between team members that is difficult to achieve over video conferencing – however many times you do it.
Relationships are formed in person
And there are also the subtleties of the personal ‘contract’: the informal favours and promises that can only be made in person, and in so doing finds an individual both in gratitude and accountable to another. These connections, as well as finding common ground with a colleague or client that exists outside of the working environment, are what can solidify and deepen a relationship – and not something that can be achieved over solely digital engagement.
The commercial case for this is made by marketing consultant Shel Horowitz, in an article by Joe Mullich in The Wall Street Journal. Over the past decade, he’s landed most of his clients through social media, web sites and other online vehicles. But [Shel] says,
“Even clients I’ve worked with remotely often book a whole lot more work once we’ve shared a handshake, some smiles and maybe a meal.”
Face-to-face engagement also fosters better employee engagement and company culture. We’re pack animals after all, and so if we’re ‘out of context’ with a group dynamic, we cannot adapt and assimilate to group culture and norms. In person engagement helps individuals develop an understandings of how they themselves ‘belong’ to the organization in which they work, how they fit in, and their relative status among other group members. These are things that can only be learned through observing how others behave and display emotions, and might not be observable over electronically based communication devices.
We’re social creatures
We are also social creatures and for global businesses with team members all over the world, relying on employees to engage solely over digital platforms can be shortsighted. There is much psychological research affirming that individuals need personal contact with others to satisfy deep primitive psychological needs. This is evidenced by the corresponding boom of co-working spaces with the rapid rise of new startups. In person social interaction provides a forum for individuals to obtain and give social support.
The accessibility and connectedness that digital communications platforms offer undoubtedly lead to great efficiencies within a business. However, the long term benefits of a face-to-face meeting - the opportunity to grab a coffee or a glass of wine, share a joke or simply have a gossip – will remain essential to the success of a business, both commercially and with regards to employee engagement and company culture.