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Virtual Meetings, or Face to Face?
The Pros and Cons

By Dan Bobinski

Perhaps you’ve struggled with how to apply technology when running efficient and effective meetings. This is especially true when meeting participants are in dispersed locations. 

Researchers at Purdue, Indiana, and Ohio State universities have tried to ascertain which style of meetings are better: Face-to-face, or virtual meetings. (It should be noted that “virtual” meetings in the study were those conducted via Email). 

As documented in BusinessWeek, the findings on which style was more effective made sense: The answer was “both.” It just depends on the circumstance. 

Researchers discovered that virtual (Email) teams do better at brainstorming. But for teams that must be strongly inter-dependent, such as working on tasks that require a bit of negotiating, face-to-face meetings bring much better results. 

The study also found that face-to-face teams communicated more effectively than virtual ones during initial stages. But as a team's project continued, the Email teams became more efficient than their face-to-face peers. This so long as highly interdependent tasks were not taking place. Highly interactive communications depends heavily on body language, which according to many studies is between 55% and 85% of communications. 

One unique mixed application of both face-to-face and virtual meetings is the Simplot Decision Support Center (SDSC) at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. This unique facility was specifically designed to increase effectiveness and efficiency during group problem solving and decision making. 

The SDSC is arranged so that team members sit at a large table and can see each other’s faces, but their computer screens and terminals are hidden from each other by small cube walls – similar to a cube farm but with walls only big enough for the computers themselves. What people type on their computers shows up on a common screen at the front of the room. The system displays whatever is typed into any computer, but it just shows the input – and it leaves each input anonymous. 

The purpose is to eliminate the problems stemming from strong personalities intimidating fellow committee members through voice tone or body language. Using this approach, even the most timid committee member can provide input without anyone knowing who said it. As a result, more people are open and honest in their communications and better decisions are made. 

The idea has gained a lot of merit. Organizations like Westinghouse, Microsoft, the Smithsonian Institute, and Federal Express are just a few of the companies that fly into Pocatello to use the Center. 

Video conferencing is also a meeting option. It’s great virtual tool for those who have it available to them, because in addition to words, you also get voice tone and some body language, both of which greatly increase communication. It will eventually become more commonplace, but only with time and a fair amount of training. 

Other technology tools include programs like Meeting Maker, which allow workers on an office network to view other workers’ meeting schedules, and thus schedule a meeting at a time when everyone will be available. On the pro side, it saves oodles of time – users don’t have to call everyone they want at their meeting and then negotiate times and dates to make everyone happy. 

On the down side, other employees can schedule you to attend a meeting without your knowledge. But this problem can be easily addressed. It takes a bit of planning, but by blocking off time you need to do other work and entering it into your calendar as already-scheduled time, your coworkers know your time is spoken for. That way your schedule shows only the times you would be available for meetings. 

All in all, the struggle for the balance of effectiveness and efficiency continues. Each style of meeting has its own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps it’s best to take advice from Bradley Alge, a Purdue professor and a co-author of the face-to-face/virtual meeting study. He suggests that whenever possible, the best approach is for teams to use a combination of both face-to-face and virtual interactions. Hey – that just makes too much sense.

© 2003 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development. Dan Bobinski is President of Leadership Development. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com.
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