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  • Writer's picturejohn pryor

Toss the Global Face-to-Face Meeting into the Dustbin of History

It is time to make a change. Global meetings where people travel to meet in person:

· Are expensive

· Risk customers being pissed off if they knew they were paying for it

· Are terrible for the Earth

· Are largely obsolete due to advances in technology

Global In-Person face-to-face meetings are expensive. We all know it. A Verizon white paper attempted to capture costs. They estimated that a five-person face-to-face meeting (held on one day) with 4 people traveling costs approximately $5000. While every company’s financial controller knows their own company’s travel expense very well, let’s use the Verizon estimates. And let’s apply those estimates to a full department face-to-face meeting. If there are 100 people in the department, that comes to $100K for one meeting. And that brings us to…

Your customers would be pissed off if they knew they were paying for these meetings (well, most of them). So, let’s think about the customer and what they are willing to pay for.

In Lean Six Sigma language, there are three categories of value-add activities. First, there is Non-Value Add which is a category of activities that adds no value to the product the customer expects, and the customer would not pay for. Then there is a second category called Non-Value Add but a Business Requirement. These activities your customers might not want to pay for, but you must do them because you are bound by regulation. Finally, there are Value Add activities that a customer is willing to pay for that contributes to the end-product they expect.

Value Add versus Non-Value Add is a wonderful decision-making tool for leaders.

Let’s go back to our 100-person department meeting. The staff wants to meet face-to-face. The group’s leader asks for justification. The response is, “Networking and getting to know our peers. And we did this last year, we need to do it again to keep building relationships.” That leader should ask themselves, or if they are brave, they should ask their customers; are the customers willing to foot the $100K bill for an all-hands staff meeting to network? No? Then the answer to the staff request for a global face-to-face meeting is the same as your customer’s answer — “No”. But let’s say the leader estimates the networking needs are worth the cost of the meeting and feels it adds to the end-product value. There are other costs to consider…

How about the Planet? Flight shaming as gotten so big that it has its own term. And it seems that flight shaming works. An October 2019 Fast Company article cited a 6000 person UBS study that found a 21% reduction in flights over the previous year due to environmental concerns.

That is significant. Of course, the amount of carbon dumped into the environment from just one transatlantic flight is also significant. In July 2019, The Guardian reported that one flight between New York City and London contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than the emissions of one person for a whole year in 56 countries from Burundi in Africa to Paraguay in South America.

Let’s add this up. This meeting costs a ridiculous amount of money, it’s terrible for the earth and your customers would be angry if they knew they were paying for it. Ahh, but the leader is still going to hold that meeting. There is budget for it and last year it was promised to the staff so they could meet face-to-face and network.

Technology makes many in-person meetings obsolete. The thinking that people need to gather in-person for networking and “to meet” is based on a history, a story that technology has made obsolete, but we are slow to acknowledge. People treat “in-person” as equivalent to “face-to-face”. And it is no longer true.

Bear with me here. Remote meetings used to be via phone. In the 1980’s and 90’s, staff were huddled around a speaker phone in the middle of the conference room table, holding meetings with business peers across the globe. There was email so some document sharing was happening at the time, though rudimentary by today’s standards. These communication tools, email and audio, were good but miscommunications occurred. That is because approximately 60% of human communication is visual. People on the other side of the keyboard and speaker phone were missing a big chunk of the message, and it created misunderstandings and mistakes.

For important meetings, whether building rapport, selling a product, presenting a group’s annual goals, or providing rewards and feedback, the preference was in-person, face-to-face to minimize miscommunication. Meeting face-to-face and in-person, attendees could pick up the non-verbal portions of the message.

In the 2000’s video conferencing started to come into its own. But even 5 years ago, it would be a stretch to call it reliable. Video calls were and are bandwidth dependent, among other things. It was a common complaint that a video meeting was a disaster because the meeting “froze”.

As companies built out their IT infrastructures and the technology improved, video became more and more available and reliable. Today, instead of expecting that the video is going to freeze up mid meeting, people are turning to quick video Google chats, Skype, WebEx and Zoom sessions to have virtual face-to-face meetings reliably.

Just 5 years ago, a face-to-face meeting was primarily in-person. In everyday language, they were equivalent. Now with reliable video technology, they are separate. Face-to-Face can be virtual, via video. You can see and hear the other person, experience their facial expressions and body language in real time. The only thing you can’t do is be in their presence and have physical contact.

In-person or face-to-face? How important is the in-person experience versus virtual face-to-face? Recent history shows that for networking, the in-person experience is not necessary. People network virtually and very successfully with a combination of chat, email, audio and video. Social media is the prime example. You can network across thousands of miles with your old college friends that you may never physically meet again. You can follow them and see their families grow. You can network for your career through LinkedIn. You may never meet some of the people in your network, but it works.

One clear benefit of in-person meetings is to get a “Yes”. Salespeople want to meet in person because they build a relationship that helps them get a “Yes” when making a sale.

In countries where tipping in restaurants is a substantial source of income for waitstaff, waitstaff take advantage of the in-person experience. Studies show that a touch between waitstaff and customer can increase the tip the customer gives the waitstaff. For waitstaff that is their “Yes”.

For leaders faced with the question of meeting physically in-person or virtually face-to-face, getting a “Yes” is a second very useful decision-making tool.

Leaders need to ask: Do I need to sell to my audience to get a “Yes” from the meeting attendees? Considering our 100-person department meeting example, if the purpose of the meeting is networking with perhaps a review of annual goals past and future thrown in for good measure, then the answer is a pretty clear “No”. That meeting is not about selling anything.

Let us circle back to the beginning regarding the all hands department meeting. The meeting costs $100K, requires air travel that is terrible for our planet, customers would be pissed off if they knew they were paying for it, and tech has made an in-person meeting for purposes of networking obsolete. It does not pass the two decision-making tests of Value-add or getting a “Yes”.

For this meeting, and so many others like it: Save your company money, save the planet, make your customers happy and put that in-person meeting in the dustbin of history.

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