The Benefits of Face-to-Face vs Technology

Nobody hated traveling more than me! I tricked myself into thinking I could get just as much done at my desk as I could if I met the client face-to-face about a project. I used all kinds of creative justifications and reasoning to convince myself and my boss that I was better when I stayed put. I no longer think that way and here’s why.

Early in my career, I believed that I could accomplish the same amount of work and be just as effective without having to go anywhere. I figured I could sit at my desk all day and be super-tuned into the needs, reactions, requests, and nuances of those I worked with without having to seem them face-to- face. What’s the big deal with face-to-face, anyway? It just seemed like a big old hassle to me.

To me, travel was an inconvenience. I would pack the night before and go to bed early so I wouldn’t miss the pre-crack-of-dawn flight. Then, I wouldn’t sleep well all night because I was always worried about not hearing the alarm go off. I’d bolt out of bed at regular intervals, thinking I had missed the flight, and glance over at the clock. Nope, 11 p.m. Nope, 12 a.m. Nope, 1 a.m. That’s the way it would go the whole night until I was so exhausted I dozed off around 4 a.m., only to be awoken by the alarm at 5 a.m.

Argh. Then, I’d have the drive to the airport, long security lines to get through, and changing of gates to deal with. Finally, I’d have to be herded along with the rest of the cattle into the long pressurized metal canisters on the runway. What a drag! Add to that I’m not thrilled about cruising at 35,000 feet above the rest of the world, and I have all the makings for my day just starting out great.

And for what? To meet face-to-face with some people? Can’t I just do this from my desk? I mean seriously, think about all the money I could save the company. No airfare, no meals, no taxis, no hotels. Yeah, that’s it. I’m not thinking about how much I hate traveling, I’m thinking about how much money I could save the company.

The Benefits of Face-to-Face vs Technology

The Benefits of Face-to-Face vs Technology

I would hear my other colleagues who loved to travel talk about their exploits and accomplishments. They’d talk about how much faster and further things moved along when they were breaking bread with team members on the client’s team. Not me. After all, I have awesome technology that helps me do all the same things they do. I have:

  • Web Conferences – One word can describe a web conference…awesome. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d have to describe what was on my screen or send a file along for someone else to maybe follow along in the same place. Now, I have control over what I want people to see and when I want them to see it. I can describe in great detail the plans around the project just like we’re sitting there together.I mean, after all, isn’t that the same thing?
  • Email – Oh yes, email. I love my email. I can make sure I’ve carefully documented every detail about what we just discussed in the super cool web conference. I then shoot this over to the client for them to peruse whenever they want. It’s just like I’m sitting there in person and they volley back a question or two about the plan.I mean, really, it’s just as good as being face-to-face, isn’t it?
  • Instant Message – Now we’re talking…for those immediate questions, I may have, I’m plugged directly into my client’s desktop using my Instant Message program. It doesn’t get any better than that. I type my question and BAM, 3 seconds later I get a response back. What a beautiful thing.It’s really just as good as being there in person, wouldn’t you agree?

I certainly agreed with myself as I tried to justify why it was better, cheaper, more efficient, and just outright easier to not have to travel. But, like I said, that was early on in my career. I realize now that I was clearly delusional to think I could rely on technology to take the place of meeting with people face-to-face.

Someone that is delusional has a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence. That described me perfectly. Sure, I saw how much more effective my PM peers were because they didn’t mind traveling to a client’s site to work through thorny issues. It might take me a little longer, but I could save the company some money and do the same thing right from my seat. That’s how I continued to justify my aversion to wanderlust.

This delusion has been forthrightly put in its place in recent years. I’ve finally realized the benefits of getting away from the desk and traveling to a client’s site as often as need be. For example:

  • They Can See Your Conviction – I guess you can convey how serious you are about a project or getting something done using email. You just have to use lots of exclamation marks and start many sentences with, “I’m really serious about this…” But, if you want to really convey a high level of conviction for a project, go see your client in person. They can see your furrowed brow, your hand as it pounds the table and emphatic gestures that convey you’re going to get the job done.
  • You Can See Their Conviction – The opposite of the above is true as well. Maybe your client is faking you out about their level of confidence by using lots of exclamation marks in their emails!! You’ll find this out once you hit the road and sit across from them. Are they indifferent to what you are working on together? Or, are they just as passionate as you are about getting this project done?
  • You Can Build a Relationship – Relationship building is a time-intensive activity that is not transactional. Building relationships require face-to-face time to talk about things like kids, hobbies, goals, history, and plans. There’s no way that level of personal and spontaneous engagement can be captured on even the most technologically savvy webinar. Email, IMs, and even webinars are perfect for exchanging facts, figures, and other transaction-centric topics. Face-to-face is perfect for expressing feelings.
  • You Understand Context Better  Context is everything. There’s a certain persona that people have when they show up on conference calls, webinars, or even send emails and IMs, and it isn’t easy to perceive how they actually relate to others. You can see the context in which they operate once you meet with them face-to-face. Do other people afford them the respect you feel they deserve? Do they have an office or are they stuck in a cube in the basement? Do other people defer to their judgment, experience, and discretion or do they get run over by even their peers? Seeing how your project counterparts operate in their own environment will let you see how much influence they may have on finishing up the project you are working on together.

My delusional days of thinking I could do everything by remote control are long gone. Is it inconvenient to travel? Yes. But, nothing replaces the result of a face-to-face meeting. Plus, once you’ve done it enough it actually gets to be fun. It’s just another day in the office; it just so happens that the office is 1,000 miles away!

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