I had a great lunch with two former colleagues (and continuing friends) at a superb Korean restaurant today; one I never would have gone to on my own merely because it was in a location I just wouldn’t have thought of stopping to eat in. Then again, for many years I haven’t been the type of person who goes out much for lunch. I used to bring my lunch and eat at my desk and continue screwing arou . . . er . . . working. So, during the conversation we got to talking about one of my favorite subject, which is how important is face-to-face contact . . . really?
Lots of people I know insist face-to-face meetings are, hands down, the best way to conduct meetings. They believe the numerous signals that can’t be communicated virtually are so important to understanding and communication that without them too much is lost. To them, conducting meetings virtually is not useful enough to justify engaging in often. To some, it is of no value at all unless it includes a voice connection (at the least) as well. I’m not sure I agree with them. Actually, I don’t agree with them at all. I am in the opposite camp.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of face-to-face meetings. After all, you can’t go out drinking together if you aren’t actually together. Nevertheless, in today’s environment and, perhaps, regardless of how much the economic situation improves, travel is expensive in all kinds of ways. There’s the money spent on the travel and lodging itself. There’s the lost productivity while stuck in airports or overcoming jet lag. There’s the societal costs associated with the resources used to fly jets, drive cars, etc, etc. There’s being away from one’s family and the pressure that brings. There’s the cost of bringing souvenirs home for your kids that will often as not end up under the couch within a couple of days, not to be seen for a while (and surely not missed).
I just don’t buy the argument that being able to read facial expressions and body language are all that important. Perhaps when negotiating a complex contract, where there’s a bit of gamesmanship going on, it’s absolutely necessary. However, in the kinds of arms-length transactions that make up the bulk of the activity people travel to conduct, we can usually presume a desire to achieve the same, or similar, results – can’t we? I have a lot of relationships these days with people I have never met in person. I’ve seen still pictures (mostly avatars), but nothing else of them. Frankly, I don’t even know for sure it’s what they look like. Yet, there are ways in which trust is attained; built up in thin, seemingly tenuous layers of engagement; in the sharing of innocuous details of one’s activities and interests, etc. Some of my “virtual” friends I feel closer to than I do to many of my “analog” friends.
This I attribute to the richness of communication that generally emerges with the proper use of a good social system. For instance, Twitter allows me to engage with people on several different continents. Over time, I know (and I can reasonably confirm it to be true) where they work, what they do, what they like, and – especially – what they think about things I like to think about. Over time I can determine whether or not they keep their word; that is, how trustworthy they are. In communication and collaboration, nothing is more valuable in my opinion than trust.
I want to repeat my position here. I am not suggesting meeting people in person is not valuable or that we can do away with it. I do believe, however, if we found ourselves in a situation where we needed to work with someone we just wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in the same room with . . . it wouldn’t be all that terrible. I’m going to Boston next month to attend the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. Frankly, my main reason for going is to meet – in person – at least a dozen people I have been interacting with for various periods of time who I have grown to trust and respect. I wasn’t going to go, despite my desire to meet up with these new friends. Fortunately, one of them (@ITSinsider, aka Susan Scrupski) made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse. Had I not been able to attend in person I still would have continued my relationships with these friends, and I believe they would have grown and improved.
So. I kind of hope I’ve gored someone’s ox. Otherwise, why do I reveal myself this way? Who’s going to join the fray? Virtually speaking.
March 21st, 2014 at 1:08 pm
[…] have written previously about virtual teams and the value of in-person contact, but I took things in a slightly different […]
August 19th, 2010 at 5:10 pm
As well, we need to get more sensitive to other means by which to communicate, and broaden our capabilities for all the times that normal methods might fail. We might be subject to barriers like language, and you mentioned geographies, but what about separation by species (which may occasionally seem to implicate spouses or children), planets, or quantum dimensions?
All the latter help us to realize just how many possibilities we may have left untested in our normal exchanges. The ‘impossibilities’ seem far more possible.
August 19th, 2010 at 5:23 pm
LOL! I recently used Google Translate to read a post, the original of which was in French (a language of which I have only a very slight familiarity). I then crafted a comment in English, including my observation, er . . . guess, that something was surely lost in the translation of idioms, and translated that into French; posting it on the original site. The author, who I only know as ceciii, was quite thankful I had taken the time to do what I did. For me it was really an experiment, as I think the day isn’t far off when what I did will be possible almost instantaneously, or at least the processes will run in the background and be reasonably transparent to the user.
As far as your overarching point, as I believe I understand it, I couldn’t agree more. There are so many levels on which communication can – and needs – to take place. I’ll bet, while it may seem overwhelming at times, you (like I) find the possibilities pretty darn exciting, eh?
August 19th, 2010 at 5:04 pm
If ever there should be a needlepoint made for successful social enterprise exchanges this would be it and it should be prominently displayed…EVERYWHERE: “engage meaningfully…give others the benefit of the doubt and interpret ambiguity positively, while suspending judgment until clarification can be obtained” Thanks Rick.
August 19th, 2010 at 4:30 pm
There are a number of factors involved. Indeed, while want to say I’m in your camp Rick, the factors can sway it. Like all good designers say when they smell a context: “It depends…”
Here’s the deal. I feel like I know you — we’ve never met. But what we have done is built up trust through a lot of open exchange and dialog. Through multiple channels and from different angles we’ve been able to size each other up in ways we almost never get to do with people we might work directly with and see every day.
And there’s the rub. The difference is, that you and I aren’t being imposed upon by any agendas. Add an agenda and the dynamics change…radically. People stupidly talk about not bringing any hidden agendas to a meeting. If all the agendas were exposed it would take the entire meeting to expose them all and if there were no agendas then there is no reason for a meeting.
But we can cover all sorts of agendas in continuous, unscheduled conversations, like we can with the newer technologies. To me, meetings should only be working sessions, where collaborative consensus needs to be worked out — that’s where the clues come to play.
As well, those clues are all very important when a bunch of people in a very strained culture are going to work with each other. Victimized time and time again, if there is not a kick-off meeting where I can meet people and exude my personal warmth, all they hear/see in calls and in emails is a cold witch (with a “b”). For me, that physical exchange of personal space is critical for me to be successful at all in such cultures. It only needs to happen once, or as relations become strained — a refresher.
In strained relations, if done well, the face-to-face adds a level of empathy that requires you to deal honestly and openly with someone — that is, a face-to-face designed to do just that. As I mentioned before, seeing people in the halls isn’t the same as having real interaction. The mind-numbing stupidity of the efforts to drive an hour to an office, go into my cube and never even see or talk to colleagues on the other side of my cube for an entire day was the most ridiculous experience I ever had — and eventually revolted and worked from home to get in 2 extra hours of work.
What people are not paying attention to is the critical factor: interaction…real, interaction. It just needs to happen. It can happen in a variety of ways. That is, unless you’re dealing with people who have channel preferences/biases, and that too is not all that uncommon.
All the variables and factors involved, it’s a miracle we can communicate at all.
August 19th, 2010 at 4:54 pm
Thanks so much for the comment. Truth to tell, shortly after I wrote this I posted what was a bit of a backing away from it. Well, not exactly backing away; perhaps approaching it from a different angle. The post is entitled “Enterprise 2.0 Conference Still Percolating in my Head” and is located at http://wp.me/paiNK-4n.
I’ve always believe f2f meetings are important and, in most cases, vital to success. I still believe, however, there are situations where they may not be possible and their absence can be overcome. Perhaps it would not work for everyone, and that throws another dimension into the task of team building. I also think there will come a time when some will find it quite natural to meet with people they have never experienced “in carbon”, i.e. in the flesh. I suspect it won’t happen in my lifetime or, at the least, in my life, but I do think it quite possible in the not-too-distant future. Far stranger things have happened in the last couple of decades.
I think some of the things that bring about the miracle you allude to are the natural desire many of us have to engage meaningfully, our willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt and interpret ambiguity positively, while suspending judgment until clarification can be obtained, and our willingness to disagree yet move forward toward resolution in many instances. Surely there are other reasons communication is not only possible, but actually constructive and useful.
Thanks again. I am always interested in what you have to say. I can’t say I “love” being challenged by your questioning and incisiveness (as it can be hard work figuring out how – or even if – I should respond), but you never fail to make me think about my positions. For that I am deeply grateful. All this, despite my missing you at the airport in June 🙂
May 21st, 2010 at 3:19 pm
Interesting post. I think the key is toward the end where you say: “I am not suggesting meeting people in person is not valuable or that we can do away with it. I do believe, however, if we found ourselves in a situation where we needed to work with someone we just wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in the same room with . . . it wouldn’t be all that terrible”
No, it wouldn’t. I can speak to that directly because I have clients in the US and in Europe, Australia, India, and Singapore whom I’ve never met in person. I’ve worked with client companies on projects where several members of the project team had never met face to face.
That said, we do seem to want the richer forms of contact when they’re available. In every productive long distance engagement or team I’ve been involved with, we moved to voice for at least some of our communications fairly quickly.
People who have studied online matching/dating sites note a standard progression in a relationship. They start with a “wink” or “nudge” or something similar. The next step is email and perhaps online chat. Then phone. Then in-person.
So we seem to like richer connections when they’re available. But we’re finding that social media (in the wider sense) can work just fine for lots of things. We’ve known that we can have real relationships with people online for about fifteen years now.
And we’re still learning what all this means. There’s some evidence that some aspects of supervision, like performance reviews, might actually work better online.
So, Rick, let’s hang on for the ride.
May 25th, 2010 at 3:02 pm
Thanks, Wally. I hope it was clear I’m not advocating we dispense with human contact entirely. My intent was to address those who I’ve heard suggest social media is a passing fad and it will never take the place of f2f meetings, etc. I don’t think that’s true, but neither do I believe social media will entirely supplant “in carbon form” contact, except in certain types of transactions.
As far as the analogy with online matching/dating sites is concerned, I would argue that – since there is generally a sought after, particular method of consummating that type of relationship (which is not usually replicated in the business world and cannot take place unless it’s in-person) – I’m not sure it’s entirely apt. As you say, we “seem to like richer connections when they’re available” (emphasis mine). My only real argument here, I believe, is there are now (more than ever and likely to grow) far more situations where f2f contact just isn’t feasible and, I believe, doing without is far easier and more productive than it use to be, thanks in part to the growing richness of social media. We seem to be basically in agreement on this.
I can readily see how some aspects of supervision could work well online. Actually, this is borne out by my own experience at Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne where, for the last few years, I have worked a substantial part of my time at home. In my case, there were always opportunities for me to be physically on campus, but when I wished it otherwise very little suffered from the use of virtual meeting tools, e.g. WebMeeting, IM, and the telephone. This included meetings with my boss and discussions on strategy, etc. I’m not too fond of performance reviews as a tools (at least not the way they’re normally conducted), but I’ll save that discussion for some other time.
Greatly appreciate your commenting. I’m looking forward to a very interesting ride in the next few years. Thanks again.