By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., President & Co-Founder

Leaders everywhere are trying to sort out remote work, in -person work, hybrid work, what works best… In other words, do we really need to meet in person?

The short answer is: YES!  In particular, when it comes to team effectiveness, in-person is just better. Way better. Video conferencing and online collaboration tools have been fantastic alternatives proving that remote work is viable for individuals and teams, but there is valuable and essential information lost in these digital formats that we can only get live in-person.

In early 2020 when our firm seamlessly shifted into remote work via video and chat, we were pleasantly surprised how productive we remained. Meetings happened, work got done, and in many ways nothing changed. In fact, while it was exhausting to be on video all day, we found the quality of our executive coaching work improved because all the sessions previously done via phone now included face time with clients. But it turns out video-chat fatigue is not the only downside to digital interactions.

It wasn’t until I worked with an executive team live and in-person that I truly realized what we have been missing.

In the last three weeks I’ve had the good fortune to facilitate two leadership team retreats, both in-person. The first one involved three days with the executive team of a biotech startup. It was the first time the whole team had been together in-person. The team had gone from six people to 15 during the pandemic and only a handful of leaders had spent any time in the same room together. Ever. The most recent member had 9 days of tenure.

I knew the in-person format was going to be much more enjoyable than video. Who doesn’t love a seaside resort in Monterey? But I had to wonder, would the in-person format be tangibly better?  Would the in-person format really make a meaningful difference in the value of the time spent together? And what exactly was the real benefit of being in person versus navigating the discussion via video? We hadn’t even got started on the first ice breaker when I got my answer: Sea Otters.  Sea Otters made all the difference. Let me explain.

In the two minutes before we got started, half the group was seated waiting for the others to arrive. In these few minutes many pairs sitting adjacent each other began making small talk in a way video chat will not allow. One conversation near me made the value of in-person clear. The head of Regulatory Affairs and the head of Quality Control sat together and were chatting. The Regulatory lead was mildly disappointed the team wouldn’t get to kayak in Monterey Bay as a team building activity because she had done so recently and loved it because she got to spend loads of time with her favorite animal: The Sea Otter. This spawned a very lively laughter-filled discussion about favorite animals, kayaking, and other activities in the local area. In two minutes, these team members connected as people in a spontaneous unscripted interaction that no ice breaker could quite achieve.

Now, if you know anything about biotech firms you know that the Quality function and Regulatory Affairs are, by design, set up for conflict. In the best of worlds, it is healthy conflict with patient safety forging common ground. But sometimes it can get tense. And in these moments, it helps to know and trust the person on the other side of the debate. Knowing about the Head of Regulatory’s love of Sea Otters builds trust and understanding that will, I’m quite sure, allow the head of Quality to assume positive intent and be more open in their next confrontation. If the QA person doesn’t really know the RA person, it’s easy for them to stay distanced and treat the other person as “not like me” or in the extreme, even demonize the other individual. But, when we share a laugh and find common ground with family, hobbies, friends, or even favorite animals then we are more likely to work through conflict constructively assuming that we can find a mutually beneficial solution. None of this kind of connection is possible in a 15-person video call. Certainly not in two minutes.

Another insight came from talking with the CEO as we adjusted the day’s agenda based on the timing and success of earlier activities. I realized during the conversation we were talking over each other quite rapidly for about three minutes. I would start a sentence while he was finishing his. He would finish my idea and extend it. I would see where he was going and add on. Our ability to smile and nod at each other while literally blending our spoken words allowed us to have a very fast, very rich dialogue in which we aligned our thinking powerfully and made quick accurate adjustments. Healthy mutual overtalking turns out to be an essential tool for alignment. Again, digital formats don’t allow this as the audio channel goes one way or the other, but it cannot blend.

This behavior was pervasive throughout the three days with all members. When a team member with nine days of tenure talked over team members with 3 years tenure, it subtly sent the message that new members were welcome and valued for their contribution. It helped define culture. The hierarchy that could be implied in team tenure was shown to not be relevant (conveniently, lack of hierarchy and “the best ideas win regardless of whose ideas they are” was an essential value the CEO was trying to cultivate in the group).

The examples of valuable in-person exchanges were continuous throughout those three days. Small micro-behaviors created connections between team members and allowed the team to build cohesion well beyond what they had created via video meetings. I could tell endless stories about the many moments where meeting in-person helped this team get stronger, trust each other more, make quicker better decisions, and align around a common purpose. None of these moments could have happened on video or in a team chat.

Here are my top six data points where in-person interactions excel, and video simply cannot keep up:

  1. The sea otter rule: Familiarity makes conflict safe and productive
  2. Constructive interruption:  Talking over each other builds alignment
  3. Eye-contact:  One-on-one eye contact while talking builds trust
  4. Unscripted moments: Short one-on-one conversations in large groups quickly resolve isolated issues
  5. Body language: Know immediately how a message was received by a group of individuals
  6. Full focus: Being distracted by e-mail or phone or chat is too visible, so people stay focused

While I realize in-person meetings are not always possible given health risks, travel restrictions, or even cost, let’s not forget the benefits of working shoulder to shoulder. When a new team is forming, when aligning the team is difficult, or when trust needs to be built video simply will not do. After all, we are social animals.

We can live in isolation, but we can’t thrive that way. Let’s get together.

Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.