Face to Face Communications – A must-have or nice-to-have?

face 2 faceWhile I’ve never encountered any significant resistance to the idea that a PM has to do a lot of communication in order to be effective, I’ve been hearing some discussion about the value of face to face communication in our “brave new world” of virtual teams and global projects.

There is, of course, the classic communication model of Prof. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA for the effectiveness of spoken communications:

* 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
* 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
* 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

I’m a definite believer that a lot of information over and above the words are conveyed in a face to face (f2f) conversation (at least when I’m really paying attention). From a techie perspective, there’s just a lot more info capacity in the optical bands.

We are now faced with PM situations where f2f is not happening. I’ve even had several cases where people were glad they no longer had to have f2f meetings. To paraphrase, “It’s so much more efficient to use email.”(my emphasis) While I’m a fan of efficiency, I’m a bigger fan of effectiveness, and I’m worried that, in the name of efficiency, some PM effectiveness is being sacrificed.

I recently talked with some interesting entrepreneurs. They provide technical design services. Most of their business is conducted online with many independent contractors. While successful, they were not feeling satisfied. Upon examination, it turned out that while the work was going well, there was little sense of having fun as a team. The freedom (and low-cost model) of working from any access point was being offset by isolation. That isolation had a couple of implications… First, they had begun to think and organize their projects as compartmentalized. Instead of the natural collaboration they remembered from the “old days” working in neighboring cubicles, they were working to specs by themselves. Second, there was little of the cross-fertilization they remembered from the old days. Thomas Kelly (IDEO) and others write about serendipitous encounters where ideas collide and re-combine.

So, I believe there is a great deal to be gained in “esprit de corps” and creativity when people can connect.

Does that mean we can’t do it except through physical proximity? I don’t think so. For me it’s not so much about physical f2f all the time, but how can we get the benefits given out restrictions? The UCLA study does not imply that email cannot convey 100% of meaning. It only means that when restricted to words (caps, bold, color, and emoticons can add a bit), it takes a bit more care/effort to make sure the meaning is received accurately and completely. I think we’re at a stage where the technology is available, it’s more a matter of providing appropriate opportunities. It may be only a matter of encouraging unofficial channels of communication, or replacing some of the phone conferences (I really hate these) with video (I am not a Cisco promoter, but do own a few shares). I know some companies that looked at how well their yearly celebrations worked and decided to have them (perhaps not quite so elaborate as having everyone go to Tahiti) more often. Yes, some of these ideas may cost some money (and reduce efficiency). But, how much is increased creativity worth? Or having productive people that want to work with you?

for those that are interested here’s some various bandwidth statistics from “The Encyclopedia of Networking and Telecommunications.”

Application Rate
Personal communications 300 to 9,600 bits/sec or higher
E-mail transmissions 2,400 to 9,600 bits/sec or higher
Digitized voice phone call 64,000 bits/sec
Digital audio 1 to 2 Mbits/sec
Compressed video 2 to 10 Mbits/sec
Full-motion video 1 to 2 Gbits/sec

1 thought on “Face to Face Communications – A must-have or nice-to-have?”

  1. I really can appreciate this blog entry on Face to Face communications.

    This is something I too, have experienced some resistance in our organization to speak face to face. There does seem to be a reliance on non verbal, physical meeting of parties who are involved on a particular project or urgent request. I tend to get email from managers and other top level employees who sit less than 20 feet from me. I am not sure if it is just laziness, too burdened by many other requests, or just plain avoidance, but I am one who needs to see a physical (body language) reaction. Just reading an email doesn’t always convey the necessary emotion or reaction. I am not one who can read subtlety from text let alone direct interface. Sometimes, I read one thing when a completely other reaction may have been intended. I like that, as is stated in the blog, there are many examples of getting a point across via bold, italics, emoticons, or capital lettering to convey an emotion but again, some of this can be misconstrued. There is something to be said for a hybrid method of F2F and other technology use as stated within the blog. There is definitely an emphasis on time and place in my organization

    Another issue that plagues me is that it can be time consuming to have to keep adding follow on questions on a particular topic, email on email. Although it is nice to have time to think about what you are gonna say or ask, sometimes the back and forth tends to overwhelm me when time is essential. It gets to be a chore. So being able to use teleconferencing, video conferencing along with emails helps to smooth the interaction between partners in development. Gives a chance to make sure points of view are defended but at the very least heard. Questions can be asked and discussed and hashed out. I still rely on F2F or at the bare minimum phone (voice connection) to convey issues, questions, and points, when I am pressed for time. Maybe the real issue for me is to learn to make as many points and carefully think and ask my questions in one email. So my real issue may be how to construct a constructive email.

    A good blog!

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