Things that are technically possible are not always practically feasible. When I was a kid it was technically possible for me to build an electric door lock out of Legos. However, it was practically impossible since my sister would not stop kicking the door open long enough for me to complete it. I have experienced something similar in the virtual meeting space.
The technology for virtual meetings has been around for a long time. Today every computer, laptop, tablet and smart phone has the ability to host and attend a virtual meeting. But the natural inclination of 2 people who need to get together is to calculate time and distance in an effort to find a place and time to meet in person. In my work with companies few things hold the promise and allure of the virtual meeting. With only 24 hours in a day anything that can shorten the commute and cut to the chase is welcome.
After leaving a recent appointment I thought "why in the world didn't we do this on the computer?" Just the day before one of my clients had saved me over two hours by suggesting that we meet on the phone instead of in person. So I asked "when is virtual at least as good as face-to-face?" Below are three criteria to help you determine when to go virtual and went to stay at your desk or computer.
One-on-one meetings are ideal virtual candidates. With an audience of one there is plenty of time for everyone to be heard. There is also less opportunity for you to miss the ample nonverbal communication that occurs in group settings. We have all been on conference calls with 10 or more attendees. These virtual meetings are troublesome because it is impossible for the speaker to interact with the attendees. When speaking the leader is quite literally broadcasting to a captive audience. Then the floor is relinquished to the next speaker. There is no ability to gauge how attendees are receiving the feedback of their colleagues because almost all nonverbal communications is whiped out in a virtual setting. Without productive dialogue meeting attendees usually look back in hindsight and wish someone had just sent an email.
By contrast, one-on-one conversations have been happening on business phones for decades. We may prefer face-to-face encounters for particularly sensitive conversations, but most of the time the phone or computer is just fine. Groups of three can also usually be accommodated virtually as long as there is a clear intent behind the meeting. And that leads to the next point.
If the agenda is easily defined and everyone understands the focus of the meeting ahead of time it is a good virtual candidate. This doesn't mean that the topic is simplistic or that the material to be covered is easily dealt with. But it does imply that the material is straightforward. For example, a meeting about a key employee's lack of performance is a good opportunity to skip the travel and meet virtually. But a meeting to brainstorm organizational chart changes is probably better handled in person. The difference between these two scenarios is that in the first case the agenda is well known and all the issues are easily disclosed in premeeting preparation materials. But in the second scenario we don't quite know what all of the issues are. Part of the purpose of the meeting is to uncover things we don't know yet.
In person meetings are also preferable when understanding the personality of the other person is a large part of the agenda. This is one of the reasons sales are often more effective in person while customer service is almost always done on the phone. The decision to buy can be emotional and intense with all kinds of "why" questions. But customer support is all about the "what" of diagnosing and solving problems.
I was recently interviewing the son of a company founder over the phone. After an hour discussing the dynamics of his relationship with his dad I recommended that we fly him down for a face-to-face meeting before proceeding any further. There are some things that are communicated more readily through nonverbal communication and you need to see those things in person to hear them. In my work those types of conversations only account for about 20% of my meetings. The other 80% fall under the category of simple agendas and known issues that can be tackled virtually.
The last point is probably the easiest to evaluate. If the meeting can be concluded in less than an hour it is a good candidate to go virtual. Sometimes 90 minutes is an acceptable threshold. Why? Because everything happens faster in a virtual world. When a blind person is deprived of their sight hearing becomes much more acute. It's the same with meetings. When you remove all of the extraneous stimuli surrounding a face-to-face meeting the focus is narrowed to the issues at hand and things progress more quickly. If you factor out the small talk and the stalling to stretch a meeting to its scheduled end time most substantive issues can be handled in about 20 to 30 minutes.
The other thing that you need to consider is that your audience on the other end of the phone or computer terminal is unencumbered from any obligation to give you 100% of their attention. The moment that the intensity of your discussion lets up they will be checking email, walking around the shop floor, or digging through their inbox. We will put up with idleness in face-to-face meetings that we will never tolerate on the phone. There is a drivenness in the virtual world that recognizes the many competing interests for your colleague's attention. Use that focus to your advantage and accomplish more in less time. If you need an hour in person do not be surprised if 20 minutes into the call you are wrapping things up.
Face-to-face meetings will always be the desire of salesman and employees asking for a raise. But when you are dealing with a small audience, with easily defined issues, and a fairly predictable time window reach for the virtual venue first. I think everyone will be thankful for the change of scenery.