Back in the room again?

Many of us have had no choice about meeting face to face or online in the last year.

Now that there are some signs that meeting in person may be back on the cards, will you stay or will you go?

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons in order to find the right mix or, if you do not have a choice, to make the most of your meeting whichever way you run it.

Advantages of face to face events

Human interaction is fuller in a face to face event.  You observe body language, hear tone of voice, see expressions on faces.  The range of possible formats is huge, from formal round table board discussions at which people raise their hands to speak or vote, through stand up briefings to open space sessions where people create their own agenda and huddle in small groups.  Often there is time and space for informal interaction over coffee and what political operators call ‘corridor conversations’.  This blend of formal and informal contact enables humans to get business done and build the relationships that sustain business.

Disadvantages of face to face events

Most meetings suit those with a more extroverted personality.  Others hold back while they think things through or find it hard to make their voice heard.  Meetings are often dominated by those who speak loudest. Hierarchy may be reinforced by the room layout and style of discussion – who is at the head of the table, who is asked to speak first?  Although everyone is physically present, they may be staring out of the window thinking about something else, or peering at their phones under the table.

Advantages of virtual events

Virtual events can be more democratic.  Hierarchy is less evident when everyone’s image appears the same size on a video conference screen.  Other markers of difference such as physical disabilities diminish, as may signs of seniority such as age.  Well facilitated meetings offer a range of ways to participate – talking, looking, working together to build a picture or create a plan.  Virtual meetings allow you to use time productively if the meeting itself is not relevant.  Multitasking is an opportunity – quietly working through emails while keeping half an ear open for the important points in the discussion.

Disadvantages of virtual events

Many people are unfamiliar with how to get the most out of virtual meetings.  The etiquette is not clear.  It is difficult to ‘read the room’ without the usual cues from body language and tone of voice.  Although less severe than they were, technology problems still get in the way.  A participant who has to leave a meeting and log in again, or whose audio is not working, will feel excluded.  Psychologically we may feel less than fully present in a virtual meeting.  We miss the breadth and depth of signals we send and receive when we are physically present – glances, nods, murmurs, eye contact, gestures.

So each has advantages and disadvantages – so even as more options open up, it’s probably a matter of finding the right mix.

And of course, we would add – think about having a dedicated facilitator for whatever mix you opt for.

Please tell us what you think – are you eager to get back ‘in the room’ or happy to keep it virtual?


Please note that our new book Virtual meetings:  a practical guide is available now in ebook here.