Can You Ever Truly Replace In-Person Meetings?

During a recent customer advisory board meeting (an in-person meeting, I may add), I was involved in a heated debate about flexible, remote working options. We zoned in on this question: “Can you ever truly replace in-person meetings?”

As more companies offer flexible work arrangements, and more employees take advantage of remote opportunities (especially during the summer), I’ve continued to explore the question. Sure, the in-person versus remote debate isn’t new, but it is becoming a larger conversation for several reasons: emerging tech, inclusion, and the next generation of managers. Consider this: Upwork’s Future Workforce Report says that younger generation managers (i.e. Millenials and Gen Z) are more likely to support remote teams. In fact, 69% of these young gen managers already offer remote working.

Before I dive into the research, what are your initial thoughts? Do you think it’s possible to replicate in-person meetings?

What We Know About Working Remotely

Though remote and flexible work is ever-changing due to emerging technologies, we do know a few things based on research.

Remote work is becoming more common. Remote work is gaining popularity; and in turn, this conversation isn’t going away anytime soon. According to Gallup’s most recent data, 43% of U.S. employees worked remotely at least some of the time in 2016. More recent projections suggest that 50% of the U.S. workforce will soon work remotely. And by 2028, one study says 73% of departments will have remote workers.

Most remote workers love working remotely. The State of Remote Work published by eight companies including Buffer, RemoteYear, and Trello, asked nearly 2,500 remote workers this question: “Would you like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of your career?” 99% of respondents replied ‘Yes.’ Researchers described this as the most notable stat in the report.

Science shows face-to-face interaction is powerful. When researchers from the University of Chicago and Harvard studied the impact handshakes have on dealmaking, they determined that, “Handshakes increase cooperative behaviors, affecting outcomes for integrative and distributive negotiations.” It’s well-known that physical touch and in-person interactions build trust.

With clear benefits to both types of working arrangements, it’s definitely not black-and-white debate.

My Stance on Virtual and In-Person Meetings

So, back to the question: Can you ever truly replace in-person meetings?

To quote every thought-provoking professor, my short answer is, “It depends.” It’s not a yes or no question. In my experience, there needs to be a mix of in-person and virtual meetings. And it’s vital to determine which meetings mandate an in-person arrangement.

A recent study evaluating e-leadership and nonverbal cues concludes: 

...in the digital realm, the ability to convey subtle nonverbal cues is equally—if not more—important. This is because virtual collaborations can only successfully function if the leader is able to resolve miscommunication, adopt a positive interactional style, and facilitate a supportive working environment.

I agree. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to notice when there is a communication breakdown, making in-person meetings necessary, not simply required. As the research asserts, virtual collaboration depends on our ability as leaders to resolve miscommunication. More importantly though, I view it as my responsibility to create structures and processes that proactively foster effective communication; it’s not enough to react to miscommunication.

At the end of the day, I’m a strong advocate for both in-person and remote meetings—when done strategically. When it comes to virtual meetings, I like Google’s “video-first” approach. As Google asserts, “With video, attendees can interpret the facial expressions and social cues, which allows everyone to ‘read the room’ and react accordingly. ” With video, screen sharing, and shared doc capabilities, intentional remote meetings can have unique benefits like live, in-document collaboration.

Perhaps we were debating the wrong question. Maybe it’s not, “Can you ever truly replace in-person meetings?” but rather, “Is an in-person or virtual meeting more appropriate for this situation?”