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Face-to-face meetings: are they prehistoric? Should we fight for what some may consider an outdated practice?

virtual handshakeIt’s been the subject of a study into children’s activity this week: as today’s young people spend increasing time behind a screen, researchers have shown that their generation is physically slower than ours – just as we’re physically slower than our parents’ generation.

Our physical evolution prompted discussion regarding other research, concerning our memory; that is, if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. It’s been suggested that we’ll get so used to ‘googling’ an answer to something that we won’t make ourselves remember what we learn – our knowledge will be ‘streamed’.

You may wonder what this has to do with meetings. It’s clear from these studies that technology has become so ingrained in our personal lives it’s having profound effects. Technology is just as prevalent in our workplace environments; it can’t fail to change it.

But when it comes to meetings, and how to effectively manage discussion with your staff, does technology also prove detrimental? Although convenient, does Skype, and similar programmes/tools, eradicate the positive benefits that come from face-to-face meetings? Is team building as effective if all contact is done via a screen?

To contemplate this question, let’s look at what meetings in person can bring:

  • An all-round view. For all its convenience, video and phone conferencing cannot give you a thorough, overall grasp of your attendees’ opinions or the conversation as a whole. If proposing something new, you can’t monitor how well it’s being received, because you’re not able to read recipients’ body language en masse. Neither can you acknowledge everyone’s feelings simultaneously when you’re scattered across screens in different locations, or pick up on visual signals or clues. Depth of meaning is heavily diluted when technology comes into play.
  • A richer understanding. When you meet someone face-to-face you get a deeper sense of who they are, as conversation flows more freely – even if it sometimes wanders away from the topic at hand. Rather than this viewing this as time-wasting, you can often find out more about your staff and contacts in your network as a result – like how they operate, their personal/family situations, and the trust/connection between you.
  • You know everyone’s ‘there’. With video conferencing – and phone conferencing, in particular – you can’t fully assess engagement. phone conferenceYou may be able to see attendees’ faces on the screen via video-calls but they could be carrying out other tasks at the same time. It’s very easy, for example, during a phone conference, for people to be carrying out other work – which restricts their listening and understanding of the topic being discussed. People can’t turn their back on what’s being said in a face-to-face meeting to do something else.
  • Natural interjections and effective conversations. Because it’s hard to effectively see others on a video or phone conferencing call, it’s hard to know when it’s your turn to speak. This results in people talking over each other and others not listening effectively, which doesn’t happen in person as body language/other signals provide natural surges and lulls in conversation. When face-to-face, you can read facial expressions, give and receive eye contact, derive depth of feeling and participation from physical cues, etc. You can also recognise silence, which can itself speak volumes.
  • Synchronicity. Technology is incredible but however much it moves forward, synchronising conversation via video or phone conferencing will never be as effective as when a meeting is face-to-face. Less confusion, fewer distractions and little outside noise afford better clarification of issues when in a closed, physical meeting.

Responses from a 2009 study¹ showed that face-to-face meetings were deemed as key towards effective, long-term relationships. In particular, negotiation, recruitment and customer service were seen as areas that benefited hugely from physical interaction.

gaggingWhat do you think? In our pursuit of cost savings and convenience, are we losing the ability to communicate effectively? Will we have poorer business relationships than the previous generation, due to evolving business operations and advancing technology? Will team building and the developing of our people become harder for leaders; will our influence be diluted if we’re only present digitally? I welcome your thoughts.

I address these issues and more in executive coaching and leadership coaching sessions. If coaching could help you, get in touch on 01302 220221.

¹2009 global survey of 2,211 Harvard Business Review subscribers. Thanks to http://www.freedigitalphotos.net for use of the images.
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