When you meet someone face to face, the conversation may have a very different outcome compared to when you communicate remotely, via digital technologies.
In my previous article I identified six ways in which people tend to think and behave differently when you see them in person.
They listen to you more objectively, and with greater consideration and empathy. They are more open to sharing their honest thoughts, and are also more present and patient than during a conference call, for example.
It’s easy to see how conversations can go down a more positive path when participants bring the best versions of themselves to the table.
However, there’s also a lot going for modern communication technologies, which allow you to connect with essentially anyone from behind your desk. Reaching out to others using email, online chat, phone call or video call is often quicker, cheaper and more practical than getting together in person.
So when is it worthwhile to organise a face-to-face meeting to talk about an issue with your teams or clients? This depends a lot on the type of discussion you’re planning, as well as the relationships between participants.
Here are a few situations where objectivity, consideration, empathy, openness, presence and patience are hugely important, and therefore in-person interactions will really pay off.
1. Building and maintaining a cohesive team
When people who work together don’t know each other well – perhaps because the team has just been formed or new members have joined – it’s always a good idea to bring them together.
This can be especially beneficial when people with vastly different cultural backgrounds and work styles need to collaborate – for example, when a large corporate organisation partners with a small entrepreneurial business.
Having the chance to sit down for a chat and perhaps also work side-by-side for a little while will help people get to know and trust one another. You might find that you don’t even need to run any team-building exercises to achieve real cohesion.
This can also be a good time to discuss communication strategies and protocols. All this will make communication and teamwork much smoother.
Distributed teams, or teams with remote members, can also benefit from regular face-to-face catch-ups.
In fact, some businesses only recruit remote employees who live close enough to regularly travel to the office for meetings. Others assemble their teams in beautiful, exciting locations once or twice a year for a few days. These events are not only productive but also fun and memorable. They bring people closer and make them feel they’re part of a great culture.
2. Discussing complex or ambiguous issues
Work would be so much simpler – and certainly less interesting – if all our ideas and expertise could be translated to documents and spreadsheets. But in reality our mind is nothing like a well-organised library. Some of our most valuable thoughts are entangled with countless irrelevant ideas and questions, as well as an array of memories and emotions.
The problems we face in business are also often complicated; we need to deal with competing priorities, constant change and moving targets. And let’s admit, collaboration itself can also be hard work; sometimes our teams and clients can be emotional and unpredictable – they are human after all.
Put simply, we’re trying to solve complex and often ambiguous challenges with a somewhat messy, complicated mind. Hence, we need all the help we can get to communicate clearly and effectively. We can’t afford to have parts of our messages lost in translation or misunderstood because of the limitations of remote communication.
Let’s look at a common example.
Say you come across an unusual task that you can’t complete with your existing tools or systems. This can be a good time to review how you do things and to innovate.
What does the ideal outcome look like? What resources do you have? What are you missing, and where can you find help? What are the priorities, and where are you willing to compromise?
If you and your team are not sure of all the answers, or there are disagreements, it’s best if you have a face-to-face conversation. (I’ve also touched on this topic in this earlier article.)
When you’re already under time pressure, having to deal with such intricate challenges can set you back even further. You must be eager to find solutions quickly. But this is even more reason to carve out some time to get together with your team, so that you can address the issues thoroughly.
Studies show that trying to resolve a complex or ambiguous problem through digital media can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and conflict. (Here is an excellent HBR piece exploring this issue.) Members often message each other back-and-forth and have several failed attempts before the issue gets resolved, if it get resolved at all. Now, that’s a real waste of time.
3. Tapping into imagination, intuition and emotions
In this age of artificial intelligence, we can only remain attractive and competitive if we do what machines can’t do – by channelling our imagination, intuition and emotions into our work.
Our clients and team members alike are looking for a real connection and exciting experiences. Their problems are unique, multifaceted and often personal, and we can only give them what they truly need if we’re able to move beyond rational, linear thinking.
I’ve spent several years in ‘professional’ environments where I wasn’t taken very seriously, and some colleagues found me touchy-feely and soft, because I refused to mute my right brain. But today’s business climate is different, and you can find plenty of evidence supporting why it’s worth inviting people to bring their whole selves to work.
We tend to think more expansively and solve problems more successfully when we tap into our imagination, intuition and emotions. We learn faster and also teach better. We express ourselves more powerfully, and build stronger and more caring relationships.
As a workplace consultant, I’ve produced my most well-received works and developed the most fruitful collaborative relationships from this space.
However, most of us can’t just drop our guard at the click of our fingers; we need to feel safe and inspired. And being surrounded by empathetic and attentive people who are in a similar frame of mind can really help. When they give instant feedback, and their responses and expressions leave no doubt in our minds about how our words are landing, we’re more prepared to jump into the deep water.
So whenever you plan a conversation where you need participants to go deep – perhaps sharing personal experiences, creating an inspiring vision for the future, or listening to their sixth sense – make sure you bring them together.
4. Dealing with stress, disagreements and conflicts
Here’s perhaps my most important advice: please try to discuss issues in person when there’s tension in the air. When you’re dealing with stressful situations, disagreements and conflicts, for example. When you expect the collision of different opinions and conflicting interests. Or when you’re giving feedback that might stir up emotions. Remember, even constructive feedback can take some time to digest.
I don’t need to explain why objectivity, consideration, presence and patience are especially important for working through issues when emotions are high.
Still, in my experience, these are the times when team leaders and members alike are most inclined to discuss problems remotely, usually because they want to save time or to avoid direct confrontation. To make things worse, they often communicate in an ad-hoc manner, being reactive rather than proactive. The outcomes can be less than ideal, and potentially disastrous.
During my career I’ve experienced an array of stressful and frustrating situations that could have been handled better by smarter communication. For instance, I collaborated with team members under great time pressure where none of us had enough time or resources to complete some of the deliverables. On other occasions we disagreed about priorities, budgeting, and what our clients really needed.
Tense discussions conducted via emails, online chats or over the phone rarely led to satisfactory solutions. Despite our intentions to communicate intelligently, we were not always objective, empathic and patient. Sometimes things were said that created further tension and left a bitter taste.
Even in a well-managed business, misunderstandings and stressful situations can occur once in a while. To give yourself the best chance to save the day, I strongly recommend that you dedicate time and effort to creating focused, rational conversations where all members are heard – truly heard.
These conversations might not be a walk in the park, but will certainly help you and your team to understand each other and make the most of the situation while experiencing the least amount of pain.
The human factor …
Of course, modern work presents countless other situations where it’s usually worthwhile to meet people in person, including coaching and mentoring sessions, sales conversations, project handovers and debriefs.
As a rule of thumb, whenever you intend to share tacit knowledge – such as ideas, insights and experiences that are personal, contextual and thus difficult to put on paper – you can expect better results from face-to-face interactions.
On the other hand, when you’re looking to discuss clear-cut plans, facts and figures, it might be unnecessary to bring people together in the same room. For example, you probably find that you can effectively discuss progress updates, technical issues or routine activities through remote communication with your teams.
I realise that every team, project and situation is different, and the choices are not black and white. However, it’s always worthwhile to stop for a moment before you send out a meeting invitation, and ask yourself, ‘Could the human factor play a significant role in the conversation I’m planning to have?’