About the author
James P. Ware
James P. Ware is Executive Producer for Work Design Collaborative, LLC.
He writes about changing nature of work, the workplace, the workforce, and management practice on Future of Work Blog.
His organization’s goal is to foster community, conversation, and mutual learning about the future of work and the forces driving change.
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I seem to be inundated these days with articles, blog posts, and tweets about the differences between â€œbeing thereâ€ and interacting with people remotely. Thereâ€™s a growing presumption that we can all â€œmeetâ€ virtually with no loss of quality, creativity, or our relationships.
But there are also many, many well-meaning managers who are skepticalâ€”who still believe that â€œyou canâ€™t manage â€˜em if you canâ€™t see â€˜em.â€
I met recently with a group of CEOâ€™s of mid-market companies who just canâ€™t accept the idea of flexible work programs that enable their employees to come and go as they please. The CEOâ€™s were adamant that they needed to have their staff in one place virtually full-time â€œto build a common cultureâ€ and â€œto make sure everyone is on the same page.
And I met a CEO last year who insisted that her companyâ€™s competitive advantage came from its collaborative culture. That was in the middle of the gasoline price spike, and she was so convinced of the value of face-to-face that she was seriously considering offering her employees commuting subsidies to ensure that they would
all be in the office every day.
However, while I know thereâ€™s a lot to be said about the value of â€œbeing there,â€ I just donâ€™t think itâ€™s that simple. Yes, there are powerful arguments for face-to-face, but technology is relentlessly chipping away at the differences.
In June I posted a note on our Future of Work blog about a story in the New York Times regarding the continuing importance of face-to-face interaction (â€Place Still Matters – A Lotâ€œ). That story focused largely on the places where people choose to live and base their work from, and stressed the value of being â€œwhere the action is.â€
And Iâ€™d also like to call your attention to a recent article in Impact Magazine (a publication produced by OM Workspace, the contract furniture division of OfficeMax).
The article (â€Face to Face: Design and Technology for Collaborationâ€œ), by Elizabeth Hockerman, explores an important but all-too-often unasked question:
Mobile technology provides untethered freedom. So why
do millions of people still partake in the dreaded rush-hour commute
The answer, of course, is that they want to be with other people (although certainly many of them probably work for organizations that expectâ€”no, requireâ€”them to be in the office if they want to keep their jobs).
Thereâ€™s still an almost-universal gut sense that face-to-face communication is much more powerful than â€œvirtualâ€ meetings, even with the increasingly powerful collaboration tools now available (thereâ€™s also the reality that lots of those people would work remotely at least some of the time if their employers would let them,
but thatâ€™s another story altogether).
Ms. Hockerman quoted one â€œexpertâ€ on the subject:
â€œThe main reason people go to the corporate office is to be with other people,â€ says James Ware, executive producer of The Work Design Collaborative LLC, based in Prescott, Ariz. â€œThere is a tremendous power in face-to-face meetings. Same-time, same-place can spark a powerful source of collaborative innovation and meaning for people.â€
However, she also cites an expert on meeting rooms and collaboration technologies:
â€œA conference room is no longer thought of as just a meeting space within a building, but as a virtual meeting space in a limitless universe,â€ says Marvin Hecker, director of audio-visual design at JanCom Technologies, Inc., in Austin, Texas. â€œThe level of technology available today can create a telepresence, where the visual and sound during a teleconference is presented in such a natural way that it is as if all participants are sitting in the same room.â€
The technology to create telepresence has yet to replace face-to-face contact, but, like most technological investments, it offers organizations the possibility of increased productivity and efficiency as well as reduced costs. But remember that less time and money spent traveling to in-person meetings can only be effective if the technology can preserve the power found in human interaction.
Actually, I do believe weâ€™re getting closer to technology that â€œpreserves the power found in human interaction.â€ Most of us these days are completely comfortable with audio conference calls, which are incredibly commonplace, even though we know we donâ€™t want them to replace all of our face-to-face interactions.
And video conferencing, using systems like HPâ€™s Halo and Ciscoâ€™s Telepresence, while still way too expensive for home offices, are finding their way into more and more corporate facilities, some of which are available for rent to the general public on an hourly basis. As more and more people experience these technologies Iâ€™m sure the demand for them â€” and our general level of comfort with distributed meetings â€” will only grow.
Add to those particular tools web conferencing and all the social networking applications, and itâ€™s clear weâ€™re all becoming more used to â€œvirtualâ€ collaboration. Yes, thereâ€™s certainly much value in being together, and there always will be. But the more the economy becomes global and digital, the more weâ€™re going to be communicating and collaborating with people who are far, far away.
The challenge everyone faces as we move into this new ageÂ of â€œworking anywhereâ€ is learning when itâ€™s important to be face-to-face, and when itâ€™s not. The fact is that we have choices today that we never used to have; we have to learn how to make those
And for a final thought, donâ€™t forget that thereâ€™s also real power in our ability today to reach out and include people in distant locations in spur-of-the-moment â€œmeetingsâ€ via telephone and web conferencing tools – thereby enriching our conversations and brainstorming sessions with ideas and perspectives that were simply not possible to access before the Internet created a truly global community.