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.