Do Face To Face Business Meetings Still Matter?

Dr Richard Arvey PhD, Head of the Department of Management and Organisation at National University of Singapore.

This information originated in American English.

June 10, 2009

SINGAPORE -  I'd like to ask you to humour me for a moment and imagine a world where time travel is possible.
In this time travelling world a business executive has an important business problem to discuss with
colleagues who are based all over Asia Pacific. So to decide what format of meeting might get the best
results the executive trials three different meeting formats using the same agenda and inviting the same
participants.

She then hosts each meeting via email, teleconference and face-to-face travelling back and forth in time
to see which format was the most effective and finds that the results of each meeting was quite different.
Email communication allowed the executive to be very clear about details and was easier for those who
speak English as a first language to understand. However email also resulted in individual rather than
unified responses and hence no solution was agreed to the business problem.

The conference call was great for allowing the executive to provide instructions but many meeting
participants felt nervous of speaking up on the call and some even kept dropping off the line thanks to
poor connections, so no real debate or discussion took place.

Finally, the face-to face meeting she organized did cost her more to host, but allowed the team to work
together to brainstorm many different ideas until eventually they came up with some solutions. Some of
which were even agreed in the hotel restaurant after the meeting was over.

Back in the real world, the principle illustrated through this fantastical example also applies. The format of
a meeting has an enormous ability to influence the results, and yet amazingly many businesses fail to
consider the importance of the form and function, instead prioritizing another increasingly important factor
- cost.

Of course it's true that in these times of economic concern, cost is important and improving technology
now presents us with many cost effective alternatives. Telephone conference and video calls, emails and
blackberries have all made multi-location business communications a much easier and affordable activity
but perhaps we should stop more often to think about how this might be impacting on the efficacy of our
meetings whether the short term savings might have a longer term business cost?

As a Professor in organizational behavioral psychology I am often tasked to explore the relationship
between business activity and human behaviours and so was recently engaged by Hilton Hotels in Asia to
research the fundamental question ‘Do Face-to-Face Business Meetings still Matter'. The hotel group
was keen to understand the value of face-to-face meetings compared with other forms of business
communication so I began to explore this interesting and relatively unexplored area.

To begin with I explored some of Hilton's own research which revealed that 77% of people believe that
offsite meetings are a necessity not a luxury, 85% believe that face-to-face meetings are more likely to
result in breakthrough thinking and 82% that meetings bring out the best in people.

Further to this if you are considering a conference call in place of a face-to-face meeting just take into
account the fact that 81% of people admitted to carrying on working whilst on a call, a further 81% to
checking their emails, 75% to having sideline conversations with colleagues, and most shocking of all
35% visited the bathroom whilst on the call.

Entertaining as these findings are, what they illustrate is that there is still a place for email and
teleconferences but if misused, they can be the cause of a lack of focus, alienation of staff and customers
and hours of wasted business time.

Ultimately face-to-face meetings satisfy a fundamental human psychological need that other forms of
business communication simply cannot provide.

Face time in meetings encourages transparency and trust, establishes strong social and important
exchange relationships and assists the ability for participants to evaluate and judge. It enables verbal and
nonverbal communication and reveals the nuances often inferred by hand and facial gestures to be
correctly understood. For example, have you ever noticed someone frowning on a conference call?
Probably not, you have to be face-to face to see this expression.

A meeting can also help the members of the team to learn about the ‘norms' of an organisation and its
idiosyncratic culture. We learn a lot about the ways things ‘operate' in an organisation by observing how
others behave.

But perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the success of a face-to-face meeting is not what is
said inside the meeting room, but often what is said outside during the coffee breaks, in the bar or even
when sharing a taxi back to the airport. This time is valuable as it can provide a perfect opportunity to
build relationships, do business, provide solutions or even take disputes or issues off line.

So, even without a fictional time experiment, my research has led me to my professional opinion that
eliminating face-to-face meetings from business communications would be a mistake removing the wide
variety of positive psychological and general business outcomes meetings such as these can offer.

Selecting the right form of business communication for the right kind of meeting is critical, and while
losing face time in meetings businesses may save short term spend, in the longer term this may incur a
cost that goes beyond financial and impacts instead on people and their business performance.

Dr Arvey was commissioned to conduct his research ‘ Do face-to-face business meetings matter' as
part of a comprehensive programme of activity in support of Hilton's ongoing promotion ‘meetings for
free'. Anyone making a bedroom booking before 30th June for any date in 2009 will be eligible to
receive a complimentary day meetings package including meeting room facilities, refreshments and
lunch. The offer extends across all Hilton Family hotel brands in Asia Pacific: Hilton, Conrad and
Doubletree by Hilton.

Meetings for Free applies to any conference, training or sales event held at any one of 47 Hilton
Family hotels across 14 Asia Pacific countries for meetings from as few as 2 to as many as 100
residential delegates. The promotion is open for bookings made during a limited period between
15th April and 30th June 2009, for events taking place throughout the year until 31st December
2009. For more details see the website www.hilton.com/meetingsforfree

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