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Joel Sweeney

The case for face-to-face meetings

By Joel Sweeney

Winter 2013 – There are many technologies that make it easier to hold virtual meetings that save time, cost and inconvenience. Yet, there is a very strong case to be made that there are times that those factors pale in contrast to the value that can be derived when participants meet face to face.

A white paper, The Future of Meetings: The Case for Face-to-Face, by Christine Duffy and Mary Beth McEuen, acknowledges that the advent of virtual meeting technologies has created three formats for group meetings; virtual, face-to-face and a combination of the two. Many companies are using all three. The challenge for meeting planners is to determine which format is most effective for important business outcomes. The face-to-face format is the most expensive and is expected to provide the greatest return on investment.

Duffy and McEuen identified three business needs that are best met through face-to-face meetings:
•    To capture attention. Full attention is needed when you want to initiate something new or different, such as a new or different relationship, culture, strategy, or product.
•    To inspire a positive emotional climate. Do not underestimate the power of inspiration and positive emotional climate as a real currency of business.
•    To build human networks and relationships. Information and resources are not the only things needed for work to get done effectively. Increasingly, information is being commoditized, while there is much greater value in “people networks and relationships.”

In his white paper, Why Face-to-Face Business Meetings Matter, professor Richard D. Arvey, Ph.D., says‚ “Under conditions of low time pressure or urgency, when decisions are relatively less important, when consensus is not a necessary requirement and when the communication is mainly about providing information, computer mediated modalities represents a more appropriate communication choice. However, when there is a need for more ‘rich’ communication channels, face-to-face communications are perhaps a more effective media channel. And, of course, an appropriate mixture of both might well best serve the interests of organizations.”

Improvements in communication technology have driven an increase in the use of teleconferencing, video conferencing, webinars, etc. as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. As airfares and accommodation costs continue to climb, the use of these alternatives become more prevalent, particularly for organizations that have a large geographical base.

While these alternatives may have attractive cost benefits, they also have disadvantages. They are not suitable for all meetings. There is a tendency for the participants to multi-task during the sessions. They can work on something totally unrelated to the topic being discussed, check email, engage in text messaging or even have side conversations with colleagues. The opportunity to disengage is much greater than in a face-to-face setting.

Electronic conferencing doesn’t provide the holistic experience that face-to-face meetings offer. You don’t get the opportunity to see the body language, facial expressions or make eye contact. Even video conferencing doesn’t capture the group dynamics (e.g. how others respond when one member is speaking).

Electronic conferencing is an efficient and quick method for sharing information and knowledge. However, if quality and timely decisions have to be made, then electronic methods do not always work well. Improved decision making may outweigh travel expenses and time.

The next consideration is cost. This will be impacted by three main factors; number of participants, amount of time required and geographical range. A face-to-face meeting may limit the number of participants that can be involved.

Deciding to have a face-to-face meeting is only the first step. Proper preparation is required to ensure that the meeting is a success and that it is productive.
There must be clarity on the objectives and desired outcomes, the right participants must be engaged, a clear agenda, sufficient time allocation, suitable facilities and adequate resources. Face-to-face meetings can be costly. It is important that proper preparation occurs to make sure they are maximized.

Ravi Tangri, CSP, chief rocket scientist with Chrysalis Strategies Inc. (www.navigatechange.net), had this to say about face-to-face meetings: “Face-to-face meetings are necessary if you are driving change. You need the people involved and engaged in order to maximize the buy-in required to affect change. In virtual meetings, there will always be some level of disengagement. Buy-in comes emotionally. The participants must be engaged. Change is not just a logical thing. It requires active engagement. In a virtual meeting you risk disengagement.”

Tangri also advises that you do not start by deciding if the meeting will be virtual or face-to-face. Start, instead, by defining the objectives and desired outcomes, then decide whether or not a face-to-face is required.
Face-to-face meetings provide the opportunity for participants to engage in side-line conversations during breaks. This is often valuable to the meeting itself and to accomplishing meeting objectives. This is less likely to occur in virtual meetings.

Dawn Baldwin, past president of MPI Atlantic and senior sales manager for the Halifax World Trade & Convention Centre, believes that face-to-face meetings are effective and necessary. “If you are dealing with a large number of people, then face-to-face is the best approach. Ideas are generated more quickly and it fosters greater creativity. It is easier to stay focused on a topic or challenge. It is easier to motivate people in a face-to-face session. The relationships that are created from face-to-face meetings are much stronger. Something special happens when you shake their hand and engage in eye contact. The personal contact makes the relationships a lot more human and the decisions that are made more binding.”

Some organizations have a large number of home-based employees. The most effective way to help these employees develop an organizational culture, improve company loyalty and build strong relationships with their peers is through the use of face-to-face meetings.

Conducting face-to-face meetings involving diverse cultures requires sensitivity and awareness. Knowledge and understanding of social protocol and cultural norms will be important considerations to ensure a successful meeting. Baldwin pointed out that there are still some cultures that do business with a handshake.

Paul du Toit, CSP, commented on smaller face-to-face meetings and had this to say: “Being selective about whether to meet face-to-face, virtually or simply on the phone is critical to reaching your objectives”.

Here are some of his key considerations:
•    How clear is the intent of the meeting? Does the person seem to know exactly what is required?
•    How complex is the meeting?
•    What is the value/size of the enquiry in scope or financial terms?
•    Is there a greater need that may be uncovered by meeting face-to-face? Often the initial enquiry is the “tip of the iceberg.”
•    Is it necessary to meet more than once? Sometimes, an initial virtual meeting can be used to set up a face-to- face meeting.

“Face-to-face meetings have the advantage of three-dimensional body language and rapport and will always remain the first prize. The downside is obviously the time utilized to get there and back. However, a virtual meeting has the advantage of being able to link parties in two or more locations across different time zones – an advantage that can outweigh many others under certain circumstances. If several meetings are required, virtual may be an attractive option,” said du Toit.

Face-to-face meeting allows more flexibility to utilize consensus building techniques such as brainstorming, breakout groups and facilitated complex discussions. Complex proposals, controversial change and confidentiality are all easier to deal with in a face-to-face meeting.

Duffy and McEuen noted: “Large-group, face-to-face meetings and events are the best option when a business or organization needs to capture attention necessary for a new or different strategy, relationship, or product. They are the best option for inspiring people and building a positive emotional climate that influences decision-making and performance at every level. They are the best option for building the strong relationships and community that form powerful, informal levers for success in our post-recession business world. Finally, face-to-face is the only option for celebration and recognition rituals that enliven the human spirit and shape the cultural norms of the organization.”

Professor Arvey says: “Given the existing data and research, it is clear that face-to-face meetings are used less frequently and there is substitution via the use of computer-aided communication devices. However, the data indicate that meetings indeed ‘matter’ and that the use of face-to-face meetings has a variety of valuable psychological as well as business outcomes.”

There are more choices available to meeting and event planners. There are many examples where organizations use both virtual and face-to-face meetings in combination to make the event available to those who are unable to attend because of scheduling or cost. Virtual meetings can be a valuable supplement to face-to-face meetings. The use of electronic meeting methods will continue to grow. However, face-to-face meetings will continue to play an important role for most organizations and businesses. They offer a variety of psychological and business outcomes that can’t be achieved by using virtual methods alone.

Eliminating face-to-face meetings in favour of virtual meetings should not be the objective. Instead, finding the right mix and best use of the methods is the right way to maximize the benefits and return-on-investment.

Joel Sweeney is a speaker, trainer, coach and author. Joel helps you leverage your Speaker’s Tool Box to become a more effective speaker whether you are speaking one-on-one or one-on-one thousand. www.joelsweeney.com

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