There are a lot of ways to communicate – Books, Movies, email, phone calls, social media, text messaging, video calls – just to name a few. However, the best way to communicate, has always been, is now, and will always be, in person face-to-face. And there is one fundamental reason for this. In person communication has the most bandwidth so the parties get the most information.
In technical terms in person communication is called non-mediated communication. All other forms of communication is mediated. And it is the mediation that limits the amount of information that can pass between the participants because any technology limits the amount of bandwidth. And when you limit the amount of bandwidth you limit the amount of information.
In person face-to-face has the most opportunities for see, hear, feel, and smell than any mediated form of communication. And it is all this information that makes in person communication so different.
Bottom line, a lot of things happen when we are physically together that cannot happen “virtually.”
Physically Being with someone Provides Tremendous Insight
Often, when people meet face-to-face, they touch each other. This can be ritualized (a handshake) or just in the course of holding doors, or a business-appropriate touch on the arm at the end of a meeting. Regardless, touch is a powerful sense. An experiment done by researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard found that negotiators who shook hands were more open and honest, and reached better outcomes. Shaking hands causes the centers of the brain associated with rewards to activate. You are literally conveying warmth.
Shaking hands causes the centers of the brain associated with rewards to activate.
“That feeling is something so rare, you cannot communicate it digitally,” says René Shimada Siegel, president and founder of High Tech Connect, a consulting firm. “It’s that kinetic energy that people can feel.” Touch builds trust. That’s why job interviews and project pitches generally need to be done in person. People who trust each other work better together, and face-to-face interaction facilitates that. Video conferencing can produce many of the benefits of face-to-face interaction (Siegel estimates it at about 80% as effective), “but it still doesn’t replace someone literally walking in and shaking my hand,” she says.
A Lot of Non-Verbal Information is only available in Person.
There is a lot to communication. There is the words we use – Lexical cues, there is our vocal tones and rhythms, and most importantly there are our facial expressions. Some researchers (like Albert Mehrabian) have suggested that non-verbal represents over 90% of our communication. Clearly we have to understand Mehrabian’s and others work in the context of the situation. Trying to provide constructive feedback on a sensitive subjective requires a lot more non-verbal agility than simply providing driving directions. However, generally I believe the idea that non-verbal is hugely important in most human interactions is non controversial.
The amazing this is that a lot of this non-verbal communication done unconsciously. People’s pupils dilate when they are happy or excited, and constrict when they are sad. As you look into someone’s eyes, you absorb this emotional information and respond. This means face-to-face meetings are best when you feel someone is being too guarded, and you’d like to know the truth (e.g., a client isn’t really happy with your team, but doesn’t want to engage with the conversation). It’s harder to hide reality in person.
There are A Lot more Social Cues in Face-to-Face Situations.
Reading a text or talking on the phone limits the amount of social cues. I often multitask. But, it is much easier to multitask when the other person is not sitting next to you.
Partly this is just practical: There are social consequences to looking at your phone when someone is talking with you if she can see you do it. But also, as all your senses are engaged in noticing things about the other person, including aspects that wouldn’t be picked up by video conference, that forces your brain to work harder and be more engaged. “A new environment offers the opportunity to introduce novel experiences and situations to wake up our brains and open them to see things from a new perspective,” say Mary Beth McEuen and Christine Duffy in a white paper published by The Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University (which argued for more investment in business travel). A face-to-face meeting conveys to the other person that the topic, and the person, are important (if only because you sacrificed the time necessary to meet face-to-face).
We are Born to Connect with Others
The more we see someone the more we decide we like him or her. The person becomes part of our “tribe.” One new paper on remote work, being published this fall in the Academy of Management Discoveries, found that once the quantity of remote workers in a company reaches a tipping point, people who still work on-site start finding the office sad and dispiriting. A good number of people desire the social interaction of having lots of people around.
All of this can be taken too far, of course. The fact that people enjoy seeing colleagues doesn’t mean everyone needs to be in the office five days a week. Working remotely is often more productive. It’s also a great recruiting and retention tool for people who desire better work/life balance. The best approach might be “core hours” when everyone’s there, with flexibility at other times. That way you can get the advantages of what we know happens during face-to-face interaction—but still get stuff done too.