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Why Do We Have Face-To-Face Meetings?

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at October 25, 2021

By Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship, London Business School

Most of us have appreciated the opportunity to get back to the office for at least some of the working week. Its partly a social thing – most of us have good friends at work. For some its about providing structure, a separation between home and working life. But its also because there are some office-based activities that simply work better face-to-face.

We have an intuitive sense of the limitations of Zoom meetings, as well as their benefits, which is hardly surprising as we have been taking part in a lot of them for the last 18 months. And yet its surprisingly difficult to articulate the underlying logic for what works and what doesn’t when you are communicating virtually. One academic colleague commented to me recently, “It’s kind of strange that we really don’t know much about something so basic, like ‘when should we actually get together and talk to each other’.”

So here are my thoughts on this most basic of questions – under what circumstances should we have this activity (meeting, learning session, interview, brainstorm) face-to-face?

The first key dimension is the complexity of the interaction between individuals. A complex system is one composed of many parts that interact in non-linear ways, such that the second- or third-order consequences cannot be accurately predicted. Weather is the archetypal complex system. Small changes in initial conditions can create large changes in outcomes.

Complexity in a meeting is largely a function of the number and diversity of people invited – more people, more complexity. But it is also dependent on the intent and leadership skills of the person calling the meeting. In terms of intent, some meetings are divergent, with the objective of sparking creative new ideas or unearthing solutions to difficult problems. In such circumstances complexity is a virtue; the chair of the meeting doesn’t want to be able to accurately predict the outcome. Other meetings are convergent, where the intent is to narrow down a set of options or to agree on a way forward. In such cases, complexity is more of a necessary evil. The chair cannot predict how things will play out, but he or she needs to get buy-in from all those invited before a decision can be made.

When complex interactions are desired or required, it seems intuitively obvious that face-to-face is better than Zoom. We have all experienced the spark of creativity, the spontaneous meeting-of-minds or the heated disagreement that emerges in a physical setting and how much more rarely these things happen over Zoom. But that still begs the question, why is face-to-face better?

The answer lies in the second dimension, the amount of non-verbal information available to those participating in the activity. A big part of this is body language – the way individuals sit or stand, how they use their hands or move their heads, all the things that provide visual cues to those around them. And of course its not just the body language of the person talking that matters; we can also read a lot into the facial expressions and sitting positions of those listening.

The other non-verbal source of information is emotions – the feelings, physiological changes and expressive behaviours of individuals. Emotions are expressed partly through body language but also by the expressions, tone and volume of what is said (we can sense emotion in a phone call, even when the other person is invisible). And importantly, emotions provide information and guide attention. When someone speaks up with passion or frustration, they provide cues that others can respond to.

It goes without saying that the amount of non-verbal information available in a face-to-face meeting is greater than in a Zoom meeting, which in turn is greater than in an audio-only conference call. Ultimately, the access to non-verbal cues is what makes a face-to-face meeting distinctive. But the key point here is that non-verbal cues and the complexity of interaction have compounding effects on one another. Imagine a meeting where two people strongly disagree on an issue and emotions start to run high. In a face-to-face setting, the chair can read the room and gauge how others feel, perhaps bringing in additional people into the argument because their body language shows they want to be involved and often coming to a better resolution as a result. In a Zoom setting, the chair has much less information to go on and after giving both people a chance to have their say, she or he will usually shut down the argument and move on, which is an opportunity lost.

So when should we have a face to face meeting?

If you put these two dimensions together, you get a visual representation of the types of interaction that are possible. In simple terms there are four:

  1. Simple interactions with clear outcomes, where non-verbal information is unimportant.  Examples of this are giving basic instructions, scheduling meetings, providing updates and so on.
  2. Simple interactions with clear outcomes, where non-verbal information is important. The painful task of making a colleague redundant is a case in point. The outcome is not in doubt, but emotions are likely to be running high and there is some uncertainty about how it will play out. Giving and receiving feedback, and hiring someone new are all in this category. Meeting a new client for the first time is also in this category. Its not a complex meeting in terms of the range of possible outcomes, but non-verbal cues are likely to be important.
  3. Complex interactions where non-verbal information is of limited value. Consider the scheduling of a new project or a status update on an existing one, where there are big interdependencies between all the moving parts. You need everyone together, but as long as things are roughly on track the meeting can be entirely task-focused.
  4. Complex interactions where non-verbal information is important. Creative brainstorming sits in this box, as it relies on spontaneous and often emotionally-laden interactions between people. Some aspects of problem-solving, especially when there are large numbers of people involved, sit here. And serendipitous connections are located here as well – the chance discussion at the water-cooler, or the colleague who helps out another because she can see he is struggling.

This categorization of activities should help you choose the appropriate forum or medium of communication.  Quadrant 1 (bottom-left) is the natural home of email or a slack channel, Quadrant 4 (top-right) is where face-to-face meetings are most vital. Quadrant 2 is tricky – pre-Covid-19 these types of activities were always done in person, but we have discovered that Zoom is pretty good for things like one-to-one coaching and feedback, and difficult conversations – even making someone redundant – can work, though not in a way that makes us feel comfortable. Quadrant 3 activities can be done face-to-face or virtually, and indeed many project teams even before Covid-19 would do a lot of their work without ever meeting up in person. But as the figure suggests, when problems occur, they are easier to resolve if the team is in one place.

The second figure includes all these examples and also my suggestion for what the most suitable forum might be – with email, phone, video and face-to-face moving out in concentric circles from bottom-left to top-right. Don’t feel compelled to agree with how I have positioned things here. The purpose of this framework is to stimulate discussion about the choice of forum, rather than to be narrowly prescriptive.

What’s missing from this framework? Little consideration is given for the purely “social” aspects of working life. A team catch-up meeting can be done by phone or Zoom, but many people enjoy their colleague’s company sufficiently to do it in person, whether that is efficient or not. Or consider the leaving-do, when the boss gives a speech to thank someone for many years of service. That is a Quadrant 2 activity – it can be done over Zoom, but everyone would prefer to do it in person, because it’s a good opportunity to socialize and to show appreciation for the person leaving.

And what about organization culture – the ‘way things are done around here’?  While there are some firms that operate entirely virtually and presumably have some sort of cultural norms, I tend to believe that culture grows and sustains itself through face-to-face interaction. Emotions and body language are important, both in terms of making better quality decisions and in terms of creating the social glue that gives people a reason to stick around.  The activities in Quadrants 2 and 4, in other words, are helpful in maintaining a vibrant culture.

Most firms today are still feeling their way towards a hybrid working model that gets the right balance between face to face and virtual. And one of the challenges managers are facing in achieving that balance is that employees are asking why they need to come back to the office at all.  Hopefully this framework provides at least a step forward in helping to answer that question and to help prioritize the right activities when everyone is together.

Julian Birkinshaw is a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and is the author of 15 books, including Fast/Forward, Becoming a Better Boss, Reinventing Management and Giant Steps in Management.


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