By now, we’re all supposed to be at home. Not sitting in front of the television but working, making use of email, VOIP, video chats and conference calls to turn the spare bedroom into an office and the company into a virtual entity. When you can achieve everything you need to accomplish in a day with nothing more than a keyboard, a monitor and an Internet connection, location is no longer a barrier and rented office space is an unnecessary expense. Business districts should be emptying and office buildings should be turning into malls and residential skyscrapers. It hasn’t quite worked out that way — and it may be the importance of face-to-face meetings that’s responsible.
According to a recent report by the Telework Research Network, a research firm, 45 percent of US workers hold a job that is compatible with at least part-time telework yet only 2.3 percent of the workforce considers the home their primary workplace. While the numbers of home-workers are expected to rise by 69 percent by 2018, those predictions are still far lower than earlier forecasts when virtual companies looked like the wave of the future.
The report cites mistrust and fear on the part of management as one reason for the unexpected slow growth of virtual working. Another reason though may be the persistent importance of face-to-face meetings as a way of deepening relationships both between suppliers and clients, and between virtual colleagues.
The benefits of real meetings with buyers is perhaps the clearest. In a white paper for the Hilton Group, a company with a reason to encourage executives to fly long distances for real meetings, Professor Peter Carey of the University of Singapore notes that face-to-face business meetings provide a number of advantages:
- Meetings improve communication.
Non-verbal cues lost even in video conferences can be seen and interpreted in face-to-face meetings, including the facial expressions of participants when someone else is speaking.
- Meetings occur in real time.
Email communication requires waiting for replies and even phone calls put participants at different times of day.
- Meetings create exchange relationships.
When people meet face-to-face, they make promises, exchange gifts, do favors and enter into all sorts of informal commitments and debts that are hard to walk away from.
- Meetings build trust.
Participants have a chance to judge the integrity, transparency and general likeability of the people they’re dealing with
- Meetings can develop sideline conversations.
Not all talk during face-to-face meetings is about business. Some of the less formal conversations that take place around the meeting can yield valuable information and new ideas.
Some experts have even estimated that real meetings have the highest ROI of any marketing tool — although the costs of travel and accommodation mean that they’re also likely to demand the highest investments. A 2009 study by Oxford Economics found that every dollar invested in business travel produced $12.50 in revenue while conversion rates in face-to-face meetings were as high as 40 percent. A survey by the Harvard Business Review and sponsored by British Airways, another company keen on promoting business travel, reported that 79 percent of the publication’s readers thought that face-to-face meetings were the “most effective way to meet new clients to sell business”; 89 percent said that in-person meetings “are essential for sealing the deal.”
Real meetings might not always be necessary though. According to Peter Carey, virtual communication can be sufficient when there’s little pressure, consensus is unnecessary and the goal is simply to exchange information. But they are important when participants need to persuade, co-ordinate and reach agreements.
Meeting Your Co-Workers
But what about employees? Do virtual companies need to bring their workers together, even if the benefits are unlikely to take the form of a signed contract or a new sale? For many of the most successful virtual companies the answer still seems to be yes.
Automattic, for example, the firm behind WordPress, was started in 2005 by Matt Mullenweg. The company now employs more than 50 staff who live as far apart as the United States, Australia and Europe. They communicate over P2, a kind of private microblogging service developed in-house, and also use instant messaging and email. Phone and video chats are relatively rare.
Each year though, all of the employees get together in person. They split into teams of three and work on new projects and in new teams.
“The idea is to get some cross-pollination and to get people to make personal connections,” Mullenweg told Inc Magazine last year. “In some ways, seeing your co-workers once a year is better than seeing them every day, because if you’re only going to see someone for a week, you try to be nice, even if you don’t like him or her. We don’t get the passive-aggressive stuff that builds in an office.”
It’s a strategy that’s also followed by Fire Engine RED, an education technology company that’s based in Philadelphia but employs a team throughout the United States and Canada. According to president and co-founder Shelly Spiegel, employees stay in touch using Skype, instant messaging and email, spending as much as three to four hours every day in some form of virtual chat. Like Automattic though, they also get together every year in Philadelphia when they combine business meetings with socializing.
“It helps us make sure that everyone’s on the same page,” said Spiegel in an interview.
Even small companies have found that a real life meeting can make a big difference. When the three members of Leading Virtually had their first meeting in 2008, one member described the strengthened bonds, shared experience and “reinforcement of the importance of one’s work-related roles and their implications on ‘real’ people and other team members.” Deadlines no longer felt arbitrary but had a real effect on colleagues’ lives which makes them both harder to impose and tougher to ignore.
It may be possible then to work at a distance and even build a company without ever meeting your colleagues or your clients. But if you do get a chance to meet them, it’s worth taking.