Technological advances such as video conferencing and cloud-based file-sharing are enabling businesses to save time and money by virtually engaging with stakeholders such as clients across borders and oceans rather than meeting them in person. This begs the question… have in-person meetings, requiring attendees to travel interstate or abroad, become redundant? We asked 15 business leaders, this week, for our exclusive “Let’s Talk…” feature looking at business meetings in the digital age.
The consensus was that the convenience afforded by virtual meetings is no substitute for the authentic human connection forged during ‘old-school’ in-person meetings – in fact, it might just be the crucial element that helps a business close a lucrative deal with a potential client or partner. To paraphrase a couple of commentators, when it comes to building a genuine rapport with someone, nothing beats the opportunity to look them in the eyes, shake their hand and bond over a coffee or meal. Another commentator stated that travelling to a prospect’s premises is useful for not only demonstrating a superior commitment to reaching an outcome but also gaining first-hand insight into their culture.
Of course, it was widely acknowledged that ‘flying hither and yon’ for in-person meetings is expensive, time-consuming and very often impractical. Indeed, more than a few commentators indicated that once they had established a relationship with a prospect in person, it became more efficient to maintain it virtually. As one commentator pointed out, leveraging digital technology to instantly connect with stakeholders in far-flung locations enables a business to make better decisions and capitalise on opportunities sooner.
Ultimately, there’s a time and a place for in-person and virtual meetings, so businesses need to take a case-by-case approach that takes into account the purpose of the meeting (is it business critical?) and whether, in the case of a business trip, the potential outcome will justify the time and expense.
Read on for further insights from this week’s “Let’s Talk…” line-up…
“Is flying interstate or abroad for a meeting redundant in the digital age?”
Tammy Butow, Co-founder, Girl Geek Academy: “While technology is enabling us to work together from anywhere on the globe, you should never underestimate the power of in-person networking. It’s easy to neglect this in today’s fast paced environment but it’s important to make the time to meet in person with colleagues, customers and partners, no matter where they may be located. It’s also important to attend industry conferences in person to network with others and share knowledge. This helps me stay abreast of industry trends and learn from others in my space. Having a solely online relationship with peers can often hold people back from the full potential of that connection.”
Tanya Titman, Accountant & Founder, Acceler8: “This depends on the purpose and importance of the meeting. Technology now allows for face-to-face meetings with customers or staff who are interstate or abroad. There are instances, however, when an in-person meeting should be favoured over a Zoom or Skype meeting. This demonstrates a superior commitment to achieving an outcome from the meeting. Sometimes it’s important to understand the business or individual’s environment. The culture of an organisation can’t be experienced via a digitally-enabled meeting.”
Wes Sonnenreich, Co-CEO, Intersective: “We’ve built several client relationships virtually, but many enterprise sales still require meetings in person. In our sector, and in Australia in particular, developing new business relationships can be more effective over an informal coffee or beverage. Once we’ve established the relationship it’s easier to swing the balance in favour of online and phone channels.
“Team meetings are better virtually as getting everyone in the same place is impractical for our global company. We use a combination of Slack, Zoom, JIRA and Practera for our team collaborations. Many of our staff worked together virtually for years before meeting face-to-face!
“We’ve found that people who are more skilled at using digital collaboration tools get better and deeper engagement with business partners and their colleagues (and save on airfares). The good news is that educators are increasingly using technologies like ours to teach these skills as part of “real world learning” experiences.”
James Brennan, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, BlueJeans: “I’m a firm believer in the power of face-to-face meetings. We live in a world where there are no barriers, which means personal connections are crucial to Australian businesses who are no longer only competing with the local industry, but with the giants of Europe, Asia and America.
“Business travel is expensive, time consuming and inefficient. With the availability of cloud video technology and other collaboration tools, the traditional barriers are no longer blocking Australian businesses and teams from collaborating with colleagues, customers and prospects anywhere in the world. Of course, nothing beats an in-person meeting for relationship building – a handshake and bonding over a meal or coffee are irreplaceable. But when time is of the essence, virtual collaboration with video can put you ahead of the competition. And once that connection is formed, video is a great mechanism for maintaining it, making better decisions, and moving more quickly. You can have face to face meetings in Delhi, Singapore, and Tokyo, yet still be home in time for dinner with the family in Sydney.
“The benefits extend well beyond saving on travel bills. The feedback I hear from the many of our startup customers, small to large business owners we talk to, is that video meetings have opened their business up to new markets, relationships and opportunities. For employees, video has empowered them to work flexibly and remotely, which means they spend less time sitting in airports and more time at home.”
James Reeves, Strategist, Atomic 212° Group: “Without a doubt technology has supercharged the efficiency at which companies, teams, and individuals can work on a regional and global scale. The ability to connect with anyone anywhere in the world instantly is truly a game changer, but I don’t ever think the need to travel and physically meet someone will be redundant. This, of course, must be treated on a case by case basis, for a weekly status call with clients based in another state there is no reason to travel in person, a conference or video call is plenty sufficient.
“Sharing future business plans, agreeing on a partnership and discursive or creative sessions all work best face to face, in my opinion. As communicators, we need to be able to form these real and physical connections, read the room, adapt the narrative and understand what our colleagues and clients are feeling.
“We’ve all experienced a lacklustre conference call, video chat or phone call. The impact just isn’t the same, the engagement, and above all the human connection is missing. If you ask yourself when the last time you’ve been inspired, felt motivated or truly invested in a meeting I guarantee it was at a meeting where there was another person in the room. For me, the bottom line is just because a technology brings us convenience and efficiencies doesn’t mean it’s the right course of action.”
Anthony Sochan, Partner, Think and Grow: “Absolutely not. You don’t need to fly interstate for all meetings but at Think and Grow we are in the business of building personal relationships with people. Call me old school, but nothing beats being able to look someone in the eyes and shake hands with them. We find it takes longer to build rapport and trust with someone if you haven’t met face-to-face. We are helping people change jobs or careers, or assisting a CEO to choose someone to help transform their business. Both are life-changing events so whoever you’re meeting with needs to be sure they can trust you.”
Elizabeth Heusler, Director, Heusler Public Relations: “On the contrary – it’s becoming more valuable. Quality engagement can be managed digitally, time and money are surely saved and it’s very efficient given our global environment. Sure, we can’t fly hither and yon on a whim. For real relationship building, particularly with new people or people from different nationalities and culture, showing up in person is a big winner. It’s the one sure-fire way to demonstrate authenticity and humanise business. It might not be the first contact, use your digital environment to start that relationship and nurture it, but at critical junctures, and when your instinct tells you, get on a plane”.
Michael Muehlheim, Senior Wealth Advisor, Macquarie Bank & Board Member of Heads Over Heels: “Digital technology is certainly enabling the reduction of a lot of people having to meet in person, and I am sure more and more operational and business-as-usual meetings will be done remotely in the future. Though face-to-face meetings allow people the ability to build trust, read the body language of the person they’re meeting with and engage and hear their tone of voice.”
Ross Macdonald, CEO, Cynata: “There’s no question that international telecommunication is now at a point that it can save you a lot of travel, but you have to look at these things as a mix – what can we do via telephonic means, and what is better left to face-to-face meets.
“Different cultures react differently. I work in the stem cell and regenerative medicine space and regularly travel to the US and the UK, but also Europe and especially Asia. In the US and UK you can usually get by doing things via the phone but for Europe and Asia it’s definitely preferable to do things face-to-face due to language and nuance. But in the US, for example, that social aspect matters less. The focus is much more on ‘the deal’ and the outcomes, and the path to getting there.”
“I think there’s an important element of trust that really comes across in a warm, face-to-face environment – if you’re having lunch or dinner with a potential partner you can get to know one another personally and build that understanding that makes for an easier follow-on. This ultimately makes the flying interstate or abroad really worth it.”
Philippe Odouard, CEO, Xtek: “It depends on the industry and the stakeholders you’re dealing with. We’re a defence company, which has an extra layer of security most companies don’t have to deal with. Much of the day-to-day business dealings of the defence industry is classified. We have to be physically present. You can’t exactly demonstrate top secret technology over Skype. So, that complicates matters for us.
“From a broader perspective, physical travel is important for creating trust-based relationships through one-to-one, eye-to-eye encounters that cannot happen online. But after that first contact most of the work can be done online. From time to time, to avoid having perspectives that start to diverge, physical meetings are also important. But not all the time.
“From an internal perspective, we have people located in Sydney and Melbourne with no issue. This is where business more broadly is headed, where travel isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.”
Robert Read, CEO, MedAdvisor: “No. Face-to-face meetings are always more productive and critical where used wisely. Yes, you can manage routine aspects better with digital, so leveraging tech to have sales calls, updates to manage time and cost, but preferably not business critical meetings. At MedAdvisor, we manage people domestically and abroad and we are always more impactful sitting together and the clients value this too. It is frustrating having to be on a plane but in many cases, it is a cost of doing business.”
Alan Manly, MD, Group Colleges Australia & author (The Unlikely Entrepreneur): “Living in the Smartphone era provides intense communication via emails and texts that demand an instant response. Meetings by video links are readily available. It’s show time for everyone. Simply adding a screen behind your desk and you are talking from an executive office. Why would you ever invest in actually meeting a person, in person? If the meeting is for a task oriented situation, where a job is to be discussed and actioned, then video link will do. Naturally, all participants will behave as they should when being recorded. Many are mindful that everything recorded can be used against them in the future. Should you wish to have a confidential meeting you would be most wise to do face to face with no digital technology.”
Luke Anear, founder & CEO, SafetyCulture: “As a company, we spend an average of 16 hours a day taking video meetings and I deliver monthly company updates to every office via video conference. While video definitely helps fill the gaps, it doesn’t replace the value of being under the one roof. Building personal relationships and ensuring the whole team really understands the mission the company is on is imperative to our success.
“All new starters from our international and Townsville offices travel to Sydney for an intense week of training and to meet the team. Each quarter, the leadership team visits each of the offices to ensure the international teams are feeling close to the product and leadership. Our experience trips also show the real importance of visiting a place in person as they allow the team to understand, on a deep level, the problem we’re solving at SafetyCulture. The overall experience the team walks away with could not be replicated via digital means.”
Mick Spencer, founder & CEO, ONTHEGO (OTG): “You need to analyse the importance of flying for business.
“I personally believe that flying for one meeting is not worth it unless it’s going to make a significant return on the cost of my time and travel expenses. I always measure by 5x: 5 x travel, my time and cost that I want to see in Gross Realisation to the business over 12 months.
“Digital has a lot of value. Recently, I presented a multi-million-dollar proposal to a company that had two staff in person and six people call in from areas across four continents. The meeting flowed seamlessly. Still, there is something about being in person with someone. I know I can close a deal when I’m face to face because there’s something about the human element that you can’t replace with digital.
“We also have customers in almost every city of Australia. If I fly to a place for a meeting specifically, I will make sure I make every minute count to justify the travel. You can do so much in one day, but time competes with time, so you need to use it wisely.”
Janine Garner, CEO, LBDGroup & author (It’s Who You Know): “There is no doubt we are living in a world where we are more connected that ever before and the opportunities to connect virtually are readily available. We can connect more frequently, across geographically boundaries and locations saving time, money and minimizing day to day operational impact.
“Despite the perceived connectedness, we risk becoming more disconnected than ever before if we don’t maintain some element of face-to-face connection. Connecting in real life is powerful. It creates the platform to engage in a human way – listening deeply, focused presence, engaging through eye contact and body language, creating opportunities to for more dynamic conversations and building foundations to form stronger relationships. True connection – the meeting of minds, actually being present not just in body but also in attentiveness – facilitates an exchange of humanity that cements and strengthens long-term relationships and networks.”