Seeing eye to eye

Although often in the shadow of their digital alternatives, face-to-face meetings still have a valuable role to play.

 

Ever wonder if all those meeting you have with your colleagues have any value at all?  It often seems as if they go off track, are dull and boring, have too many distractions and so forth. Are these face-to-face meeting really worth it, especially compared to other ways to interact using other forms of business communications such as teleconferencing, email, etc.?  In this essay, I argue that indeed face-to-face business meetings can add great value compared to these technology enhanced communications media.

First, I note that there certainly seems to be a trend to use electronic media more frequently, and, correspondingly there is a decrease in face-to-face meetings, especially those that involve travel and time away from the office. Recent surveys confirm this observation; the primary reason offered as explanation is that electronic media are more cost effective. However, there are still potential disadvantages with computer-mediated communication devices such as when participants carry on working, check email, engage in SMSing, have irrelevant conversations, and so on.

There are occasions when face-to-face meetings are more useful compared to electronically-aided communications. Under conditions of low time pressure or low urgency, when decisions are less important, when there is no need to reach consensus, and when the dialogue is primarily used for information exchange, then computer aided communication devices are suitable. However, where there is a need for more complex social interactions, when tasks and decisions are more difficult and complex, and when there is a need to respond quickly, face-to-face communications are perhaps a more effective media channel. It is also probably true that a combination or appropriate mixture of both face-to-face meetings with computer mediated communications will best serve the interests of organisations.
 

Making group decisions

There is also some compelling research detailing the value of face-to-face meetings. From simply a business perspective, a variety of studies have shown the superiority of face-to-face business meetings compared to electronic communications devices. One particular study conducted in 2002 by Baltes, Dickson, Shereman, Bauer, and LaGanke, abstracted and statistically summarised the results of 22 published and five unpublished studies comparing face-to-face communication groups versus computer mediated groups (those using email, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, etc.) in terms of their decision-making effectiveness, the time to make decisions, and member satisfaction. Their results indicated that “the overall impact of computer-mediated communications indicates that its use is associated with more negative work outcomes than face-to-face groups”. The authors concluded with this statement: “Computer-mediated communication may be an efficient and rapid means of disseminating information, but the research too date suggest that is not the most effective means of making group decisions…managers much make the decision as whether the cost savings in travel expenses and time outweigh the potential decrements in the quality of the decisions reached”.

So if the research suggests that face-to-face business meetings are more effective, why does this occur? There are a number of possible psychological components of such meeting that help explain why. These include:

1. Face-to-face meetings allow members to engage in and observe verbal and non-verbal behaviour styles not captured in most computer-mediated communication devices. There are subtle behaviours in hand gestures, voice quality and volume, facial expressions that are not visable in email discussions, chat rooms, and the like. Video conferencing can come close, but does not capture the dynamics of all members—for example, participants may miss the expression of others when one member is talking.

2. Face-to-face meetings occur in “real time” as opposed to non-synchronized time.  Computer mediated communications are often delayed because of a number of reasons, are not always received, and sometimes disrupted. Furthermore, time zone differences between group members is always an issue when one or more are trying to participate very late at night, and other odd time periods.

3. Such face-to-face meetings allow participants the opportunity to develop important exchange relationships among themselves. These exchanges might be in form of business negotiations, personal favours, promises, understandings, etc. that cannot often be achieved via other communication modalities because of their personal and informal nature.

4. Face-to-face meetings afford participants the opportunity to develop transparency and trust among the various members in ways that are not always possible in other forms of communications.

5. Face-to-face meetings allow members to evaluate and judge the integrity, competencies, and skills (e.g. verbal skills) of other participants and leaders in ways that are not accessible when using computer mediated mechanisms.

6. Face-to-face meetings allow participants to develop strong social relationships. Such activities facilitate social bonding and showing commitment through sharing mutually meaningful experiences in a common physical space.

7. Face-to-face meetings are also strong vehicles for participants to learn the relative norms of the organisation as well as its idiosyncratic culture.  Information such as the value and meaning of time (i.e., the importance of showing up on time), who has more or less relative power in the organisation, what is valued, etc. are all things people learn in face-to-face meetings which otherwise might not be observed in electronically based communications devices.

8. Face-to-face business meetings allow important “side-line” conversations among participants that are often very valuable in terms of helping members deal with complex decisions, information sharing and exchange, indicating agreement or disagreement with issues, etc.

9. Another advantage of face-to-face meetings is that they can provide a forum for members to obtain and give social support. Such support might come in the form of providing tangible assistance, information, and emotional support that might be less forthcoming or less convincing in computer aided media communications. Organisational life can be lonely and face-to-face meetings can help to alleviate feelings of isolation and stress. A related advantage is that individuals are more apt to develop social “identities” or how they defined themselves in terms of group membership with face-to-face contacts. Attending face-to-face meetings help individuals develop more clear understandings of how they themselves “belong” in the organisation in which they work, how they fit in, and their relative status among group members. One author said it this way: “Meetings are an important sense-making form for organisations and communities because they may define, represent, and also reproduce social entities and relationships”.

10. Another component of face-to-face meetings is that they can allow the direct expression of humour that is not always or perhaps misinterpreted when conveyed using computer mediated communications. Often the correct “tone” of emails are misunderstood, leaving receivers feeling angry and upset. In face-to-face meetings, members may feel more free to laugh, pun, and otherwise inject humour into conversations whereas telecom and other computer aided media communications are typically more sterile and represent “only business”.

11. Finally, another value added by using face-to-face meetings is simply that they permit human contact with one another - a primitive need shared by most human beings. Emailing and teleconferencing are not as likely to meet these needs, notwithstanding the enormous popularity of Facebook and other social networking media that essentially provides electronic connections between social friends. However, the huge popularity of these websites suggests that people might be even hungrier for social contacts than are being satisfied in their present day-to-day business and personal lives.
 

Increasing efficiency

So far I have elaborated on the value of face-to-face meetings as well as the various psychological benefits of such meetings.  But how can we make them more effective?  Essentially, the overall value of business meetings is a simple function of costs and outcomes.  Anything that lowers the costs of face-to-face meetings (i.e., travel costs, time, hotels, food etc.) will increase their utility. In addition, one can improve meetings. A quick internet search reveals a number of articles and books about how to improve the efficiency of business meetings. I have abstracted various guidelines in making business meetings more effect from these sources and present them here:

I. Prior to the meeting

a. Decide whether a meeting is necessary

b. Decide who will attend and how many

c. Decide how long the meeting will last and when the meeting will be held and where

d. Define the purpose and/or objectives of the meeting

e. Prepare an agenda—including topics for discussion, who will present the topics, time allotment for each topic, etc.  Make sure there will be sufficient time allotted within the designated time period

f. Circulate information to those who will be in attendance

g. Indicate that participants should be on time and have read relevant materials

h. Assign roles to participant if needed (i.e. note taker, facilitator, etc.)

i. Decides who sits where

j. Insure that the location will be in physically pleasing and hospitable location with good acoustics, air conditioning, conveniently located, etc.

k. Make sure adequate materials are available (e.g. over-head projects that work, laptops that function, pens, etc. How many times have you gone to a meeting and the technology fails?

l. Prepare name tags if necessary.

II. Holding the meeting

a. Welcome and introduce members

b. Identify who is in charge and any special roles to be taken by the individuals

c. State the purpose and/or objectives

d. Review the time frame for the meeting

e. Do an attendance or head count check

f. Determine the decision-making processes if necessary

g. Make sure that discussions are not monopolised by one or two people

h. Try not to get distracted by other items off the agenda

i. Summarise the major decisions made (if any) and action plans resulting from the meeting

j. Insure the level of confidentiality if needed

k. Terminate the meeting if it is over

III.  After the meeting

a. Prepare minutes and distribute them as soon as possible

b. Follow-up on action items

c. Gather feedback about items or events that detracted from the meeting

It is my belief that we can make our meetings much more effective. By doing so not only will help insure the quality of the work being performed in the organization but as I have specified above, it will enhance the working and personal lives of individuals.

In conclusion, while it is clear that face-to-face meetings are perhaps being used less frequently and there are substitution effects via the use of computer-aided communication devices, it is my belief that face-to-face meetings are still important and that eliminating them as an option would be a mistake. However, I hasten to add that using both computer and face-to-face communication channels would be beneficial. The question now shifts to what is the best mixture...

Richard Arvey

Dr Richard Arvey is professor and head of the Department of Management and Organization in the National University of Singapore's business school. He is an organisational psychologist and received his PhD from the University of Minnesota, USA. His research involves the various processes associated with motivation and job satisfaction, as well as the determinants of leadership. He has taught and conducted research at the Universities of Houston, Tennessee, California-Berkeley, and Minnesota.