To Meet or Not to Meet? - Business Works

To Meet or Not to Meet? That is the Question

Moira Taylor, GM of London MICE

As a former financial analyst spending inordinate amounts of time on aeroplanes, in security queues and hanging around various international airports attempting to get to meetings and conferences, I frequently asked myself what is the point and fretted about the enormous carbon footprint I alone must be leaving on the world. Particularly so when many of the meetings I attended may not have lasted much more than an hour. Surely there must be a more efficient way to meet people? In fact, this constant business travel actually took a huge toll on my well-being, so much so that I eventually changed career and now run an online events directory This means that I rarely travel beyond the boundaries of the London tube map these days.

Virtual meetings are low cost, time efficient and eco-friendly

While many people still spend much time travelling to and from global meetings, conferences, training programmes and exhibitions, the meetings industry has undoubtedly embraced technology and the virtual meeting is now common place and is used widely by businesses the world over. Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, webconferencing, online forums, e-learning, online networks and online collaboration tools, eg. extranet, all provide low cost, time-efficient and eco-friendly ways to meet colleagues, peers and clients to transact business, to provide training and to network.

« the people around the desk look life-size »

In fact technology is advancing so quickly that the days of jittery video conferencing systems and painful audio conferencing are now long gone and a vast array of high quality and easy to use virtual meeting products are widely available ranging from Microsoft NetMeeting, at the cheaper end of the scale, to the impressive Telepresence system being developed by Cisco allegedly "the world’s highest quality video conferencing system" which claims to be "so real that the people around the desk look life-size. So real that at the end of the meeting you reach out to shake their hands" (Lesley Stones, Business Day, 31 May 2007).

Online and videoconferencing can be inclusive, focus attention and give freedom

Web and videoconferencing can also bring together large groups of people in many different locations to hear speeches, view high quality presentations and to debate issues. Numerous global companies find virtual meetings a useful way to bring an international workforce together and easily communicate with them. At the same time, online meetings and collaboration tools when done well can really focus audience attention on the showcased information. This makes them especially attractive tools for training purposes. Audience members also have the benefit of total privacy and freedom when attending the meeting or the training course ie. they can dress or sit as they like. This is particularly useful if they are doing the meeting from home early in the morning! Importantly, webconferencing can also make meeting follow up a simple process as it can be easy to spin off a subgroup into a dedicated e-mail discussion list or an online forum.

But, its hard to build trust and engage audiences without face to face meetings

« it is much harder to build trust ... in a virtual meeting environment and more challenging to engage an audience »

So, if virtual meetings are becoming so efficient and seemingly life-like, then why haven’t they completely replaced the need for face to face meetings? The short answer is that it is much harder to build trust, particularly in a new business relationship, in a virtual meeting environment and it is much more challenging to engage an audience. This is because it is much harder to be spontaneous, to interrupt someone else, or to utilise body language or facial expressions to communicate in other ways beyond the verbal level. There is also the risk of much greater distractions. Unless skilled facilitators manage the agenda, interruptions, supporting visuals and content distribution, any virtual meeting participant has a whole array of opportunities for becoming distracted, particularly if the meeting offers no clearly stated aims, long boring presentations and little chance for involvement. At the same time the technology required to facilitate virtual meeting somehow restricts natural and spontaneous exchanges because so much attention and skill is needed by the user to work the technology.

In fact, I remember doing one global teleconference on Russian banking early one morning from my hotel room wearing my dressing gown and slippers. While it was clearly very useful to be able to roll out of bed and just do the thing, I have to admit feeling a bit weird about the whole process; it somehow undermined my apparent expert analytical status. I firmly believe that being seen appropriately attired and speaking engagingly goes along way to reinforcing messages. As always with virtual communication, without being able to see or be seen by my colleagues (though this was just as well in this particular situation!), I was left wondering what their real reaction was to my comments, and in fact how much were they really listening at all? At the end of the teleconference, I felt somewhat disappointed and less involved than I should have felt and I suspect my colleagues had a similar experience.

There’s no subsitute for initial face to face meetings

Undoubtedly virtual meetings work well for established teams and where there is a high level of trust with either an organisation or person. With new teams or unknown participants, a single virtual meeting is a challenging forum to build trust. It is therefore highly important to make initial contact face-to-face in a real meeting or event situation. However, once you have established a trusting relationship, subsequent virtual meetings and online discussion groups can then work extremely well and reinforce the trust that has been established during face to face meetings.

Virtual meetings clearly have, and will continue to have their place in business communications. In fact, all businesses should operate integrated communications in their business strategies, incorporating everything from virtual meetings to face to face meetings and events. Nevertheless, there is and will always be an absolute necessity for business people to communicate face-to-face. It is just not possible to "break bread" with people virtually.

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