While sitting at the airport, waiting to board on yet another flight, I was reflecting about my pretty horrific personal carbon footprint, caused by the amount of business traveling I do. In the past I have put quite some thought into whether a good portion of my time on the road could be replaced by audio or video conferences, which are the same means we use for regular client inquiries.
However, does not matter how good, affordable and pervasive technology has (or is about to) become, I do not feel it will ever be able to replace the “real thing”. At least not in my professional lifetime.
At this point I should remind readers that I am expressing my personal opinion, as a peculiar and occasional user of such technologies, and whatever I say about their future is not a Gartner position (there are a lot of esteemed colleagues who track users and vendors in this space).
The reason for my skepticism is related to the information bandwidth of in-person meetings. It is not just a matter of capturing body language or having a better and more natural interaction in a one-to-many environment. It is not just about the fact that you never really know how much attention people dialing into an audio teleconference are really paying to the conversation versus the multiple tasks they perform on their laptop. It is not just about the fact that people who know they are being videotaped may behave in a slightly different, somewhat more artificial manner.
It is about missing the whole context around that meeting.
Details such as:
- The choice of meeting location: downtown, suburbs, a rented facility, and why such a choice?
- The trip to that place from an airport or a train station, with a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of how things are going in that part of the world: how much retail space is available for rent is a good measure of how the economy goes, while the number of beggars or homeless are a good indication of how strong or weak the social fabric is.
- The physical layout of the work environment around the meeting room (which you discover as you walk through the aisle): are there corners for donations, are there a lot of or too few personal touches (like family pictures or souvenirs from holidays), are all cubicles occupied or are there quite a few empty ones, and are these new or not, all this tells you a lot about the quality of the working environment, whether employees are happy, whether the organization is expanding or contracting.
- The type and quality of refreshments and how people use them to support the meeting or to build small breaks: are they just a matter of courtesy or something thy do all the time, if they have dietary requirements (for example due to religious fasting) will they offer you something anyhow? You get a lot about how much they value your time by these simple behaviors.
- The use of jokes or hand gestures drawing diagrams in the air, which usually get lost during video conferences (let alone audio ones), and add color to the discussion.
- The way people choose to sit around the table and at which distance (when I was a high school student I came across proxemics, which is a discipline studying how people physically distance from each other, very interesting to read between the lines of power structures)
- The way you are welcomed: how much security in the building, is that for real of for compliance, do they walk you in and out as a matter of courtesy or because they have to?
For how convenient a remote meeting might be, there is a lot of information that you do not capture neither before, nor during, nor immediately after a meeting, which could be essential to your conduct during the meeting, to establish a better connection with your counterpart and to deliver greater overall value to your and your clients’ organization.
Of course there are plenty of cases where teleconferences are absolutely fine, or simply are the only option. But I would argue that there are good reasons for caution for all those who are strong believers that virtual communications will replace physical ones: it ain’t going to happen any time soon.