You wouldn’t think with the rise of social media and the ability to carry on conversations with friends all around the world would reduce your ability to carry on a conversation with your next door neighbor, would you? But it does, especially in the business world. In today’s climate of increasing competition, shrinking world markets and ever-tighter company budgets, the rise of technology and computer-mediated communication (CMC) is an attractive lure for companies looking to trim the bottom line. With the advent of technologies such as video conferencing and file sharing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince companies that the investment of time, travel costs, and per diem payments is justified in favor of CMC alternatives.
But evidence suggests this could, in reality, be a shortcut to failure. Before determining to switch most of our business communications from face-to-face (FtF) to CMC, we should more fully understand the dangers associated with this decision. Current research in business communications suggests face-to-face communication is still the most productive means of establishing strong connections and achieving faster agreement among parties, has greater effectiveness in delivering the desired results, and is more fruitful in terms of providing serendipitous opportunities for new collaborations and business growth.
Face to face communications have been shown to help ease business communications and bring about greater agreement faster. While it is possible to conduct business and most necessary communications via CMC at a fraction of the cost of a FtF meeting, a study by Okdie et al (2011) indicates that FtF interactions between people generally lead to more positive impressions of their partner than CMC communications. This is especially important to keep in mind while forging new relationships or partnerships. While it is acknowledged that some of the more limiting factors of personality such as age, gender or race which can have a tendency to work against the woman, the young business person, or the minority leader may be circumvented through CMC to some extent, FtF communication still manages to deliver more than it takes away. Real, FtF communication, unlike CMC, allows for the transfer of rich and abundant interpersonal and expressive verbal and nonverbal cues.
These nonverbal cues and tonal inflections are ultimately much more valuable in getting your message communicated to another person, especially someone who has not yet met you. It is much easier to avoid miscommunications to start with, and it is easier and faster to overcome them when they do happen. Within the study, FtF interactions were also found to lead to greater feelings of approval for the other. “To the extent that FtF communication compared to CMC, is rich with social cues and reduces ambiguity, it stands to reason that the reduction in ambiguity may serve to increase feelings of oneness and likeability” (157). Businesses interested in achieving strong relationships with new partners in record time would do well to remember the value of FtF communications and put them into practice as often as possible.
There is a strong perception, thanks to a simple dollars and cents analysis of costs, that CMC is the more cost-effective means for companies to conduct business in an increasingly budget conscious world. Recognizing the need for companies to save money, some scientists have suggested “collaboration tools can allow … issues to be dealt with, preliminary plans to be created and rough outlines to be agreed to before a meeting commences” (Franklin). They recommend getting as much done before the initial face-to-face meeting as possible, getting all the small work out of the way before the real work begins. However, it seems even here, FtF is preferred.
As the Okdie et al (2011) study suggests, individuals who have only communicated via CMC until the date of the important meeting will be more likely to meet with less agreement among partners to start with and find a more argumentative environment when they arrive. “A Harvard Business Review Reader Poll reported that 95 percent of sales people agree that face-to-face meetings are key to building long-term relationships. Even in our technology-driven world, there is nothing that replaces a personal conversation and in-person interactions for both building and maintaining business relationships” (Black, 2010). By handling all the small details via CMC before the meeting, it is more likely for miscommunications to happen and relationships to get off on the wrong foot. Once the relationships have already been forged, initial meetings having taken place, it may be possible to complete some of the work via CMC as a means of expediting certain processes, or, as Franklin suggests, to get some of the basic information out of the way, but FtF meetings are more likely to produce sales and have the ability to produce even more than expected.
Because of their nature, FtF meetings open up the possibility of moving off-script during momentary down times before, during, or after more formal meeting hours. These momentary lapses in the designated program can open up new possibilities for collaborations and partnerships. Describing a situation in which physically appearing at a seminar event led to a number of new and unplanned projects with a variety of unanticipated new partners, Finlayson said, “… it was not until we were sitting in the same room and sharing ideas that our mutual interests and the opportunities for collaboration became obvious … Personal connections are powerful” (Finlayson (2009, 131). However, these connections would not have been discovered if the individuals involved in these new collaborations had not found themselves sitting in the same room waiting for other events to take place, encouraging them to take up idle conversation and begin to discover other common interests and goals they shared. While it has been argued that distance collaborations have been around for a long time, “Gilbert and Sullivan wrote operettas without sharing each other’s company and without the benefit of electronic communications” (Franklin, 2001), and have been carried out very successfully, that doesn’t negate the argument that the potential for collaborative ideas is greatly magnified by personal FtF interactions. It is less likely that informal chit-chat will take place via email or will be carried on even after the main project has ended.
As society continues to move into the future, continually devising new means of communicating over long distances via computer, it is important to keep in mind the value of face-to-face connections. Not only do they help to instill trust in new business partners through the transmission of non-verbal and tonal cues in speech and behavior, but they make it possible to overcome any miscommunications faster and easier, achieve faster agreements between people, and can lead to more serendipitous discoveries among parties. There is a final caveat to the benefits of face-to-face communications over CMC. As more and more companies come to rely upon CMC to handle their business needs, companies who favor face-to-face will begin to stand out among the crowd as having the greater quality service and attention to detail. Not only will you be more successful because of the stronger bonds you create, the greater ease of coming to agreements with new partners, and the opening up of new and unexpected opportunities, yours will be one of the few businesses doing so.