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The Value of In Person Interactions and the Post Pandemic Future of Work

By Mark P. McDonald | May 25, 2022 | 1 Comment

Personal ObservationManagementLeading the Next-Generation WorkforceLeadershipEconomy

I attended my first in person group meeting a few days ago. The meeting of about 30 people provided both a launch of a new initiative and the opportunity to engage with each other.  The meeting featured main presentations with side meetings with different groups.

It highlighted the differences and limitations of remote work.  These limitations are real and something that gives me the feeling that the future of work will continue to be anchored in the realities of human interaction.

Remote meetings are that remote and disjointed

In a remote setting, the schedule consisted of a series of scheduled video conference presentations.  Separately scheduled side meeting video conferences were often held a day or two after the main presentation.  There was little continuity or flow as the gaps between the presentation and side meeting robed the group of momentum or shared understanding.   We lived with that as we had no other choice but coming together in a single location highlighted the advantages of having everyone together.  The following things struck me at the meeting.  They included:

  • Informal questions and discussions, at breaks, in the hallway where participants sought to understand what was meant by the session, how it might work in their context, etc. That does not happen when you move from video session to video session.
  • Momentum from the audience and the ideas carried over from the presentations to the side meetings. The shared context provided by the presentations immediately translated into the side meetings. It created a degree of fluidity in the side meeting agenda allowing leaders to explore the items that mattered to them.
  • The energy among participants was completely different. People were not only happy to see one another, they took the opportunity of being in the same space and time to adjust plans, collaborate on issues, do things that were harder to do when separated or having their days chopped into multiple video conference logins.
  • Expansive nature of the conversations and questions which focused not only on the formal agenda but extended into multiple valued side bars. Sidebars regarding how one would handle a particular situation were particularly impactful. They had little to do with the topic at hand, but they were real questions that would not be discussed in a timed video conferencing session.

You might say, duh, to the points above, particularly as people are getting together for the first time in a long time. I beg to differ as there has been significant momentum for a different future of work – that is fundamentally remote, virtual, digital, etc. While there is value in those work settings, work is not monolithic or if it is it becomes monotonous.

Remote as better than nothing in Education, the same as it was for Working together

Technology cannot replace human interaction. We learned that remote learning was better than no learning, but not as good as in person classes and instruction.  Teacher responding to a McKinsey survey indicated an average 4.8 out of 10 when asked about the effectiveness of instruction.

Initially we all thought remote work was great.  A PWC poll in 2020 found that “83% of employers now say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company.” Recent figures regarding the satisfaction of remote work have tempered in the two years since the initial enthusiasm.

Yes if I am working independently, on independent work tasks and an individual contributor mode remote work would drive greater satisfaction. Change those situations and the value of getting people together becomes clear.

Meeting in person as the exception?

This post is in direct response to a comment raised by a leader at the event. They pointed out that while it was nice to get people together, they thought it was increasingly irresponsible because it was expensive and had a negative environmental impact.  “I will let them do this once, but now that they have had their fun it will not happen again.” Getting people together is expensive and it has an environmental impact, so those points are not wrong there are costs.  There are also benefits that I experienced and while less tangible are no less important.

What do you think?

 

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1 Comment

  • Mark, you asked, “What do you think?”

    I’ll answer your question based on my own experience working in the tech sector for the last four decades. In-person meetings that require a significant investment in employee travel should require meaningful and substantive planning that ensures this spending is a good use of the company operating budget.

    That said, I’ve attended many internal group meetings that didn’t pass this essential test. If investors in a public company knew how these events are typically conducted they would likely be appalled. Unfortunately, most employees won’t provide honest feedback due to fear of retaliation. So, it often goes unreported.

    My recommendation, based on my experience, I’d propose that CFOs demand that all internal meetings require a business case. Managers with legitimate requirements won’t be deterred by this policy. In contrast, the amount of frivolous internal meetings would decline. It’s not a perfect litmus test, but at least it ensures a minimum level of expenditure oversight and justification.

    If there’s one thing that should not experience a post-pandemic “return-to-normal” status quo response, it’s business travel for internal meetings. Let’s move on, and do the right thing.