In today’s fast paced technological times, it has gotten really easy to hold almost all of our meetings and conferences via phone or even e-mail. Who’s got time for face-to-face meetings anyway? They just take up time, and since most people are not particularly good at them, they can be frustrating as well. As well-known business author, Patrick Lencioni noted in his book “Death by Meeting,” firms often have mind-numbing conversations in their meetings, where little of importance gets discussed and the meetings are boring and tedious. In fact, he writes, employees are simply “resigned to dealing with their horrible meetings.”
Interestingly, Lencioni does not say the solution is to stop having meetings, but rather, to find ways to make them better. His theory is that if they are done correctly, they can actually be time savers. Indeed, I have a colleague who repeatedly tells me that he can accomplish so much more and faster by just walking down the hall and talking to someone in person, rather than spending time trading e-mails back and forth.
So, what is the value of F2F meetings? Should we abandon them or are there circumstances when it is important to hold these meetings?
Here are some thoughts:
• Initially forming client or customer relationships is much better if those are started with a face-to-face meeting. You can build a stronger bond and partnership. You get to learn something about the other people based on casual conversations that you can connect to when following up in later meetings (i.e., “how did your daughter’s tennis team do?”)
• If the topic to be discussed is personal or possibly contentious, then e-mail often makes things worse. Even using the phone to hold a personal conversation (where conflict might occur) is not viewed in a positive manner. For example, having a performance review with a manager over the phone or e-mail could send the message to the employee that he/she is not valued by the manager and that his/her commitment or work to the firm is negligible. The same is true for other employment decisions, especially those of a disciplinary nature that could involve suspensions, demotions, transfers, or terminations.
• Using face-to-face meetings can be beneficial for brainstorming meetings where you want to see how people react to various items or prompts.
• Face-to-face meetings are valuable if you need to build consensus such as defining the strategy of the business or writing the mission and vision statements.
• Use face-to-face meetings when you need to persuade someone, negotiate important contracts or close big deals. This is why I have often counseled people about holding those salary conversations in person (and never by e-mail or phone)! Others also insist on using face-to-face meetings for starting business relationships or for closing business deals.
• Face-to-face meetings are more powerful in building trust. If people are to work together on a virtual team, they are more likely to collaborate if they have at least met each other.
• Use face-to-face along with technology to host a hybrid meeting. Some firms have some folks attend a meeting in person and others back at the office participating through video conferencing or Skype. This keeps the face-to-face touch while controlling travel costs for the firm. Other companies use other combinations of face-to-face and technology. This enables them to use the both of best worlds.
• One of the advantages of face-to-face meetings is that it requires that the other person really “be there” or be engaged. Unlike conference calls, they can’t mute their sound and do other work while supposedly listening to the phone call. Since they are sitting across the table from the other person, they have to actually be focused on the conversation.
• Face-to-face meetings make it easier to share confidential information without the fear that if you send something by e-mail it will get sent to everyone.
• Use face-to-face when you are dealing with complex problems and information so that people can talk about the issues to make sure everyone is on the same page.
What is it about face-to-face meetings that make them so powerful? Live meetings deliver rich experiences that virtual meetings cannot come close to delivering. Being able to see someone’s facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact (or lack thereof) and voice tone is very valuable for revealing their thoughts and leanings on topics. In fact, some businesses believe that face-to-face meetings are more likely to lead to greater breakthroughs in creative ideas and that these meetings can be more powerful in bringing out the best in others. There are even companies that insist on “e-mail-free days” to encourage employees to conduct business in a more personal manner.
Technology is here to stay and it serves its purpose. It’s not that we shouldn’t use technology; it’s just that it doesn’t communicate everything better. People are human beings or social creatures with five senses that they want to use when interacting with someone. They are not machines. Next time you are tempted to hold that important meeting over the phone or by e-mail, think about whether that is really the best venue for a successful outcome.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.