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The Power of Face-to-Face Meetings in a Digital World

Face-to-Face Meeting

Story at-a-glance -

  • There is a significant increase in neural synchronization between the brains of two partners during face-to-face, but not virtual, conversation
  • Face-to-face meetings allow group members to come up with more ideas and become more capable as a group compared to virtual meetings
  • Face-to-face brainstorming sessions produced significantly more creative ideas than virtual sessions

By Dr. Mercola

In this modern-day digital age, there’s a case to be made for communicating via video conferences, phone calls, and emails. Traveling to attend in-person meetings can be stressful, not to mention time consuming and expensive.

A white paper by Verizon Conferencing found a five-person meeting conducted in-person (involving plane travel for four of the attendees) is over seven times more expensive than a meeting conducted by audio conference and three times as expensive as a video conference.1

The average attendee also spent 53 hours and 24 minutes preparing for and travelling to the in-person event, which is about three times the time involved in either the audio or video meeting. Verizon noted:2

The price of traveling to meeting after meeting is also paid in the currencies of lost productivity, wasted time, unattended-to work at the office, and time away from home and family – not to mention the stress and frustration involved in travel itself.”

Yet, despite their clear advantages in terms of efficiency, monetary savings, and convenience, audio and video conferences may not provide the same impact that a face-to-face meeting can provide.

Perhaps that’s why 87 percent of those surveyed by Verizon said they most prefer to meet in-person, and in-person meetings were ranked as more productive than their virtual counterparts.3

In-Person Meetings Allow Your Brain to Synchronize with Others

Researchers from Beijing Normal University pointed out that face-to-face communication differs from other forms of communication in two key ways:4

  • Face-to-face communication involves the integration of “multimodal sensory information,” such as nonverbal cues (facial expressions, gestures, etc.)
  • Face-to-face communication involves more continuous turn-taking behaviors between partners, which has been shown to play a pivotal role in social interactions and reflects the level of involvement of a person in the communication

These factors are critical to effective communication and may even play a role in helping to synchronize your brain with others in your conversation. In fact, research has shown a significant increase in the neural synchronization between the brains of two partners during face-to-face, but not during other types of, conversation.5

According to the study, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience:6

“These results suggest that face-to-face communication, particularly dialog, has special neural features that other types of communication do not have and that the neural synchronization between partners may underlie successful face-to-face communication.”

Interestingly, this neural synchronization is also thought to play a key role in leader emergence, with those emerging as leaders synchronizing their brain activity with followers to a greater degree than occurs between followers and other followers.7

The quality of the communication was found to be a more important contributor to neural synchronization than the quantity of communication. This suggests that perhaps even infrequent in-person meetings may have more of an impact than frequent digital meetings.

The Unconscious Elements of Face-to-Face Meetings May Trump Even Language

Researchers from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, including Alex Pentland and colleagues, have further revealed that face-to-face meetings allow members to come up with more ideas and become more capable as a group compared to virtual meetings. As Newsweek reported:8

“The deep, often unconscious elements of in-person interaction are more important than language. Pentland and his team have studied hundreds of groups in face-to-face meetings where participants wear sociometric badges, unobtrusive devices that record unspoken social signals ,

Who’s talking, how much, in what tone, interrupting or not, facing toward whom and away from whom, and gesturing how — but don’t record what people say.

That turns out not to matter. Pentland’s remarkable finding is that ‘usually we can completely ignore the content of discussions and use only the visible social signals to predict the outcome of a negotiation or a sales pitch, the quality of group decision making, and the roles people assume within the group.’

What matters are the many ways we connect only when we’re physically together.”

You might argue that you can still “read” a person’s facial expressions over video chat, but research suggests something is still lost in translation. For instance, in a study of brainstorming sessions done face-to-face, over the phone, or via video chat, the face-to-face sessions produced significantly more creative ideas.9 Face-to-face pairs generated about 30 percent more ideas than virtual pairs.

Face-to-Face Meetings Are Best for Creativity

Meeting in person allows for increased eye contact, which builds increased trust and encourages group members to confide in and co-create with their group. Research published in the International Journal of Organizational Design and Engineering found:10

“ … [T]he more team members directly interact with each other face-to-face, and the more they trust other team members, the more creative and of higher quality the result of their teamwork is.”

The power of face-to-face meetings has not been lost on some of the most successful corporations in the world. The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, is said to have designed workspaces in order to force people to have more in-person interactions.

Google also serves its employees free food in cafeterias, in part to encourage them to stay on campus and mingle with their co-workers over lunch.11 Yahoo even made headlines in 2013 for, controversially, banning telecommuting for its employees. At that time, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a memo:12

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Harvard Cites Benefits of ‘The Water Cooler Effect’ on Scientific Research

Colleagues who spend more time in close proximity, able to chat around the water cooler, so to speak, may even produce better research, according to Harvard Medical School researchers.13

After examining data from 35,000 biomedical science papers, they found more personal contact, particularly between the article’s first and last authors, led to more citations generated (the number of citations generated per scientific paper is used as a gauge of article quality).14 They concluded:

“Despite the positive impact of emerging communication technologies on scientific research, our results provide striking evidence for the role of physical proximity as a predictor of the impact of collaborations.”

Is There a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ for Telecommuting?

Telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular among employers and employees a like. While 50 percent of companies allowed telecommuting in 2008, this had risen to 67 percent in 2014.15

While increased telecommuting offers greater flexibility to workers and may save companies money in overhead costs, it also takes away valuable time for face-to-face interactions among employees. Is there a “happy medium” that might provide benefits all around?

A poll conducted by Gallup suggests there may be. It found people who work remotely report being more engaged, enthusiastic, and committed to their work, provided they work remotely 20 percent of their working hours or less.16,17 It seems one key to telecommuting successfully may be to spend more time working in the office than out of it. As Money reported:18

“On one hand, it [Gallup’s poll] found evidence of added productivity from those working outside the office: People actually work more hours at home, in part because they weren’t commuting or running errands at lunch. Some of the productivity increase also comes from being away from office distractions, says Gallup CEO Jim Clifton.

But there is a point of diminishing returns, adds Clifton. People who spend 50 percent or more of their time working off site are less engaged than in-office counterparts and people who spend all of their time working remotely are twice as likely to feel disconnected from their work, Gallup found.”

In-Person Interactions Are Important in Your Personal Life, Too

Much of the research on the benefits of face-to-face interactions surrounds their role in the business world, but don’t forget these benefits apply to your personal life too. Loneliness, a feeling of being disconnected from those around you and wishing you had that connection, is on the rise and can put your health – both physical and emotional – at risk.

While people are increasingly turning to social media as a way to connect with friends and family, be sure you are also taking time to have those irreplaceable face-to-face visits with those you care about. Psych Central explained:19

It is often difficult, if not impossible, on social media to reveal the qualities that define deep, intimate relationships. While our social media friends offer us a great deal, it is not a true substitute or even supplement for real-life interactions with others. Social support can be a strong predictor of positive mental health. Emotional support has been shown to protect us from a wide array of both psychiatric and physical ailments.

But unlike online friendships, real-life relationships take time and effort. They help us learn about others and ultimately ourselves. Online friendships, while certainly valuable in many ways, lack the ability to provide us with opportunities for deep and lasting emotional closeness. So accept and seek out your online friends, rekindle lost connections, and revisit childhood friendships, as long as it is not at the expense of nurturing and deepening your real-life relationships.”