Finding the balance between technology-enabled and face-to-face communication

OPINION / 29th November 2019

You can’t share a plate of pierogi on a conference call.  Digital communication technology saves a lot of time and money by allowing business teams to communicate effectively without needing to be in the same physical location as the people we’re talking to.  But should digital communication completely replace face-to-face meetings? 

With offices in Poland, Kiev and London, a global client base and a culture that champions remote and flexible working, there’s no way that ORM would be able to operate without digital tools.  In particular, project teams and account directors like me rely on platforms like Slack to manage the daily back and forth with our developers in Jelenia Góra, and on Zoom for video conferencing with staff and clients around the world and down the road.  But the delicate balance of technology vs face-to-face team contact came to light for me recently when a project manager and I travelled to our Polish office for three days to meet with our development team.

The difference that those three days in Poland made to our team dynamic has been incredible.   When we came back to London and jumped on one of our daily Zoom calls, we were so much more in sync and clearly more relaxed chatting together, with a shared drive to deliver exceptional work for our clients.  What had been a group of individuals working separately had now become a connected team with a common purpose. What’s worrying is that we could have easily chosen to hold these meetings over Zoom, shared the details in Google Docs and collaborated on a project plan in Jira instead of making the trip to Poland, but, if we hadn’t made the trip, our team (and the work we produce) would have suffered for it.    

Technology gives us amazing tools to communicate virtually but, for me, nothing beats face-to-face interactions to build exceptional teams and drive innovation.  So, my question is, how can we harness the power of technology and the myriad of tools to aid communication and collaboration that are available to us, without losing the intrinsically human need for in-person contact?  

A good place to start is this quote by Massari, “If it’s not that important, send an email. If it’s important but not mission critical, pick up the phone. If it’s critically important to the success of your organization, go see someone.”  Finding the right blend of sophisticated virtual tools with carefully planned face-to-face meetings is the key to building trust, encouraging productivity and maintaining a sense of purpose in a world which is only going to become more virtual.  

Sometimes an email is the best way of keeping track of important information and key points that may get lost otherwise, but scheduling weekly (or even daily) check ins with colleagues using video conferencing allows you to see the subtle emotions and facial expressions which you might otherwise miss, and is great for getting problems solved quickly. Likewise, channels like Slack, where used cleverly, can be great for maintaining day to day contact and collaboration but, if this is the only way teams communicate, it can lead to feelings of isolation, a lack of shared purpose and likely episodes of misalignment – which impacts on client relationships as well as team morale.  I believe it’s crucial to the successful operation of remote teams to schedule face-to-face meetings at least every six months to tackle challenges, brainstorm ideas, kick start projects and socialise. This is especially true for teams that are as intrinsically linked as our teams are at ORM – our engineering teams in Poland and Kiev are involved in key aspects of our support for our clients, including speaking to them directly and, if we don’t have the same purpose and feel the same sense of belonging through face-to-face contact with others in our team, delivering exceptional work for our clients is going to be a challenge, if not almost impossible.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that face-to-face meetings are always preferable.  For example, in our London office we’re often guilty of having meetings simply because we’re in the same space, even though sending a quick message might actually have been more efficient.  The challenge is to get the balance right. With that in mind, we’re busy planning for our Polish colleagues to come over to the London office in the next couple of months and we’re looking forward to working across the desk from one another instead of over video chat! We might even treat them to a pint after work. 

Kasia Woods Kasia Woods