Balancing Face-to-Face and Virtual Meetings
Projects imply meetings. Meetings are forums for sharing information, discussing and resolving issues and making joint decisions.
They are forums for cultivating and maintaining personal relationships. In this age of virtual communications, we must address the issue of how many of our meetings should be face-to-face and how many should use alternative media – email, messaging, electronic discussions, phone, video. Perhaps, soon to come, holographic images.
There is a trend “towards virtual contacts and less and less to real ones. And that endangers the “human moment” – that in-person connection where we feel the closeness that allows bull’s eye contact, the kind of interaction that resonates, moves people, and makes a lasting impression. Such moments allow a powerful psychological encounter that simply cannot happen on-line. “1
But, let’s not get carried away in an either-or comparison or an absolute statement about what can and can’t happen on-line. The convenience and efficiency of virtual communication must be considered in order to reach the right balance; a balance that leans towards more virtual contacts. How do we make sure virtual contacts are effective and that they increasingly stimulate the kind of connection we get from face-to-face contacts? How can we maximize the impact of the human moments with or without face-to-face contact?
The Power of The Human Moment
In 1999, face-to-face meetings were defined as meetings at which the participants are together in the same location at the same time – they are synchronous and collocated. They enable “the human moment: an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space. … The human moment has two prerequisites: people’s physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention. ” 2
The physical proximity allows for the sense of presence that comes from being attentive, seeing, hearing and “feeling the presence” of the other(s). Attention – uninterrupted by phone calls or distractions like emails and texts – communicates that the exchange is important and encourages the other party(ies) to also pay attention.
The human moment happens one-on-one and at team meetings. The face-to-face contact provides us with the emotional and social connections that support healthy interpersonal relationships and the effective performance they enable.
Being face-to-face (whether in the same room or via video conferencing) helps to reduce ambiguity and the worry it brings. The cues that come from body language, facial expression and tone of voice gives us the non-verbal communication that is so critical to a complete exchange between people.
What are Virtual Contacts?
Virtual contacts are exchanges that are supported by technology. We can consider an email or message exchange on a particular subject to be a virtual meeting.
The participants are not collocated. The meetings may be synchronous or not. There may be visual contact as in video calling and conferencing, audio only, or entirely in text via email, texting, electronic discussion facilities, shared documents, etc.
Each has its pros and cons. For example, synchronous meetings enable the shortest duration for addressing a subject, while they are the most constrained (the individuals who must be present at the same time), more costly, and more difficult to facilitate in real-time. Asynchronous, text based contacts (email, etc.) offer an audit trail, time to think and write, while they are most prone to misunderstanding because of the absence of non-verbal cues and they also make for a longer duration to address the subject.
Project meetings are about reporting status, syncing up to make sure everyone is on the same page, defining and solving problems/issues, vetting requirements and designs, and planning. They involve both dialog and presentation. Projects can be more efficient and effective by skillfully using virtual methods. This is particularly the case when the participants are geographically apart or difficult to schedule.
The Right Mix of Face to Face and Virtual Meetings
What is the right balance between face-to-face and virtual contacts given the power of the human moment and the desirability of virtual meetings to save travel time and expense, enable scheduling flexibility and promote a documented audit trail?
Of course, there is no one right answer. Balance is a dynamic quality that changes as the situation changes. Human moments are complex and do not necessarily require physical collocation. The right mix depends primarily on geography, the team members’ emotional, social and organizational intelligence levels, the degree to which the participants know one another, the complexity of the issues and whether there is a time constraint.
Ideally, the participants would have had physically collocated face-to-face contact and their human moments so they come to the table with some sense of the others as real people. In my experience, this is not always possible and also not necessary. I have experienced months and even years of virtual contact with colleagues who I have never met in the flesh. We have accomplished quality work, cultivated an effective relationship, and gotten to know one another in a series of emails, document sharing, phone calls and, in some cases, video conferencing.
In one project I worked with a team to create a project management methodology. Team members were in NY, Toronto, the Mid-west and Germany. Our synchronous meetings were by phone and used conferencing tools for document sharing. We shared complex ideas via email. We argued, joked around, designed, defined, wrote and edited and accomplished.
When I finally met some of the team members we were already friends. We had had human moments virtually.
Would face-to-face contact have been better? Maybe. Would it have been more costly? Definitely.
In another instance, we engaged in a contract negotiation that was accomplished in a series of face-to-face meetings separated by email contacts to clarify complex issues and provide inputs to the meetings. Again, this team did all the same things the other team did in the virtual meetings. Did the addition of human contact – sharing food, socializing and seeing one another’s body language, facial expressions and general attentiveness – add value? Absolutely. We negotiate a contract and we set a stage for being able to work together to execute the contract. Our face-to-face contacts enabled doing most of the detailed work virtually over a geographical span.
Over the course of the contact’s execution, monthly face-to-face meetings were planned to sustain and reinforce personal relationships. Complex technical solutions were transacted via teleconferencing and the sharing of documents to memorialize the meeting results. In some cases, the team members involved had never met face-to-face yet were able to come to amicable and effective technical decisions.
As defined earlier, human moments have two prerequisites – collocation and attention. Collocation is not enough to engender the social contact “that resonates, moves people, and makes a lasting impression”3 . In my experience, much of that effect can be obtained without the physical collocation. The psychological and intellectual attention and the quality of communication seem to make the difference.
If a person at a meeting – whether face-to-face or virtual – is constantly checking and responding to texts and emails there is a negative human moment – a lasting impression that the person is dismissive of the others, uninterested in the content. In email and e-discussion exchanges the amount of time between posts, the seriousness and relevance of responses and the general tone of the language create a subtle meaningful impression. Not all human moments lead to positive impressions.
Find the Right Balance
Face-to-face and virtual contacts are facts of life in projects. The bottom line is to remember that whether you have met them in person or not, the people you are communicating with are people with opinions, biases, capabilities, priorities, jobs to do, time constraints and all the challenges that confront you. With this in mind, there will be more human moments even in virtual contacts.
Your common purpose is to get the project done well. Every meeting is a step towards that end; a mini-project. Design each meeting to be as efficient and effective as possible, given geography, criticality, communication skills and the emotional, social and organizational intelligence needed to operate skillfully in any media.
 Goleman, Daniel, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chemistry-connection-daniel-goleman
[2 ]Hallowell, Edward, “The Human Moment at Work, HBR, Jan-Feb 1999, https://hbr.org/1999/01/the-human-moment-at-work
 Goleman, op. cit.