Humans are social creatures by nature. Most of us appreciate opportunities to talk to our colleagues and clients in person. In fact, many jobs require those in-person meetings, whether to pitch a specific product or service, offer training or information, network with other stakeholders, and so much more. Pre-pandemic, people met in person regularly — in offices or restaurants, coffee shops or the park — to discuss business.
But when COVID arrived, all industries needed to rethink their approaches and pivot to 100% virtual meetings to avoid the risk of infection from this unknown public health threat. Now that we have more options to ensure our own and others’ safety in-person meetings are making a strong comeback. Virtual meetings, however, remain an important communication tool.
How do you decide whether to meet in-person or virtually? You can start by asking these questions:
- What’s the meeting’s purpose? Is it relationship-based or task-based, for example? Virtual meetings often work well for task-based meetings whereas relationship-based meetings benefit from in-person contact.
- What are the latest guidelines for public gatherings? As the pandemic continues to recede, additional treatments and protections are available, and people feel more comfortable gathering in-person, most areas have rolled back restrictions on groups of people meeting in-person. Should we see another wave of infection, consult with federal, state, and local requirements for guidance.
- What’s the issue’s complexity level? If you’re tackling a thorny problem that’s difficult to understand, or it’s emotionally complex, an in-person meeting may prove more fruitful.
- Can — or should — my meeting take a different shape or form? We’ve got Zoom or a room (or hybrid!) but there are so many other options now, too, like Yac. This app allows someone to record a video for others to listen to at their convenience. It’s a great way for company leadership, for example, to share updates with their employees.
- What meeting type would be most inclusive? Consider your audience for this question. Do you plan to meet with people in relatively close proximity to your location or are they more far-flung? Does the person you’re meeting with have a tight schedule that makes it difficult to find a common time for an in-person meeting?
In-person meetings serve many important roles. According to the experts at Harvard Business Review, in-person meetings can’t be beat for conflict mediation and donor meetings, team building and leadership development, planning/allocations and performance reviews, and more.
A certain ‘magic’ occurs when people interact face-to-face that doesn’t always happen in a virtual environment. Face-to-face communication establishes trust, as does touch — like a handshake, for example. In fact one experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard and the University of Chicago found that negotiators shaking hands tended to be more honest and open — and they reached better outcomes.
In-person meetings allow you to read the other person’s physical signals. Why? Because it’s harder to hide reality, the emotional information someone projects, in person. It’s much easier to read someone’s body language and identify that yes, someone on your team isn’t happy or a client is uncomfortable with a current situation.
Another benefit to meeting in person? Fewer distractions pulling your focus away from the task at hand. You pay more attention, listen more effectively, and are more present or in the moment. Other pros include:
- Fewer technical difficulties when everyone’s in the same room. You don’t have to worry about someone struggling to dial in, forget to unmute themselves, or get accidentally bumped off the call because of an internet/Wi-Fi issue.
- Strong camaraderie that might be difficult to achieve or replicate on a fully virtual platform.
- Increased participation, since participants can’t turn off their cameras or mute themselves. We’ve all experienced awkward pauses — and they’re even more uncomfortable in-person, leading more people to engage when they’re all sitting around the table.
For all their benefits, however, meeting in person does have a few disadvantages, including:
- Its tendency to consume more time.
- Scheduling conflicts especially as the number of people involved in a meeting increases.
- Travel and commuting costs.
- Inconvenience to those who might need more time to prepare, travel, or make accommodations in their personal lives.
Virtual meetings can’t (and won’t) replace in-person meetings, but they are handy depending on your meeting goals. They’re great for giving updates and committee or ‘emergency’ briefings, a state of the union address and for supervisory meetings, quick team check-ins, and skills training, for example.
It’s often quite easy to call a quick virtual meeting last-minute — a definite benefit for supporting team collaboration and communication. They’re often more efficient compared to in-person meetings, too. There’s no need to travel or commute, people can keep working until a minute or two before the meeting starts, and since few people enjoy spending hours on a video call, it’s easier to keep them moving along expeditiously.
Other advantages of virtual meetings include:
- Cost effectiveness, since the only main expense is the online meeting platform, which is miniscule in comparison to other line items on a company’s operating budget.
- Their convenience. You can log on anytime and anywhere as long as you have access to wi-fi.
- Their inclusivity, because people from all over the world can participate at once. So can people with limited budgets, whose companies won’t/can’t pay for travel and hotel accommodations, or who have children that turn business travel into a logistical nightmare.
- Their ability to accommodate people with disabilities, whether mobility issues or hearing/vision challenges, for example.
One challenge identified as a shortcoming of virtual meetings, however, is that they may be less productive when it comes to collaboration and discussion. Conversations don’t always flow as easily. Other potential drawbacks to virtual meetings include:
- Lower energy and less interaction because virtual meetings — by their nature — require a tighter structure.
- Less spontaneity among participants especially in meetings with many attendees. It’s easier to interact and network with people in person than virtually, and you might be less likely to speak with someone who’s not talking to you directly.
- Technical difficulties, since we rely on the internet and a specific meeting platform to host a virtual meeting.
- Distracted participants whose attentions may wander, especially if they remain muted with cameras off. This distraction also leads to decreased participation.
Your objective will often determine how — and where — you meet. Pitching a product or service? Brainstorming ideas or growing relationships with your team? Meet in person. Sharing updates with the team or a group of stakeholders? Need to watch the budget or keep to a strict deadline? Schedule a virtual meeting. Each has its value, so don’t cross either strategy off your list.
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