IT IS often said that business meetings are a “waste of time” and not needed in the context of technology-enhanced communications such as telecommuting, e-mail, SMS and Twitter.
Common complaints about business meetings that involve actually meeting face-to-face include: “dull and uninteresting”, “people lose interest”, “we go off target”, “excessively expensive”.
And it is also clear that organisations are increasingly foregoing face-to-face meetings for technology-enhanced methods of communication.
But there are strong arguments for the continued use of face-to-face meetings. I will summarise them in this article.
First, there is research literature establishing that group processes and outcomes that require coordination, consensus, timing, persuasion of other parties and so on are less effectively accomplished using computer-mediated communication modalities.
In addition, a study published by Baltes, Dickson, Sherman, Bauder & LaGanke — which summarised the results of 22 studies comparing groups that had face-to-face meetings versus computer-mediated groups on decision making — found that “the overall impact of computer-mediated communications indicates that its use is associated with more negative work outcomes than occur in face-to-face groups”.
Face the facts
From a psychological perspective, there are a number of positive features about face-to-face meetings that cannot always be achieved as well via other forms of communication.
Allow members to engage in and observe verbal and non-verbal behaviour styles not captured in most computer-mediated communication devices. There are nuances associated with hand gestures, voice quality and volume and facial expressions that are not observable in e-mail discussions, chat rooms and so forth.
Provide human contact among members. Human contact is a primitive need among human beings. We are social creatures and isolation is harmful.
Allow participants to evaluate and judge the integrity, competencies and skills (especially verbal skills) of other participants and leaders in ways that are not easily evaluated in computer-mediated mechanisms.
Enable participants to develop strong social relationships among themselves. They facilitate social bonding and showing commitment.
Are also strong vehicles for participants to learn the relative norms of the organisation as well as its idiosyncratic culture.
The value of sidetracking
One particular facet of face-to-face meetings is that they permit “side-line” conversations among participants, which are often invaluable in accomplishing jobs.
Often, discussion during breaks help members deal with decisions, share and exchange information and indicate agreement or disagreement with issues.
See the lighter side
Another aspect of face-to-face meetings is that they allow the direct expression of humour, which is not always or fully conveyed in computer-mediated communications.
Members may feel freer to laugh, pun and otherwise inject humour into conversations, while telecommunication and other forms are typically more sterile and focus on “only business”.
With regard to the efficiency of face-to-face meetings, there are a number of ways to enhance such meetings, both in terms of being more effective and lowering costs.
A quick search on the Internet will reveal a plethora of articles and books that provide advice on these two issues.
Given the existing research and various psychological factors, it is clear to me that face-to-face meetings do indeed “matter”.
Perhaps a more accurate question concerns not whether face-to-face business meetings are “better” than computer mediated communications but, instead, what the right combination of face-to-face meetings and computer-mediated channels for your organisation is.