Virtual meetings tend to polarize opinion. You either love them or you hate them. According to research from the University of Edinburgh, the arguers fall into one of two camps. "Virtual Meetings save so much money and time, soon we'll be all meeting that way", or "Virtual Meetings will never replace face to face meetings, so give us back our travel budget".
Just to underline this, the comments to The Scotsman's blog suggest that people aren't shy about voicing their opinions one way or the other.
The first group (no doubt led by radical tree-huggers, rabid bean counters and introverted, anti-social IT folks) point to the very obvious time-savings, cost benefits and environmental blessings of holding meetings online instead of traipsing all over the country (or even the planet) to get together.
In the Edinburgh study, a three-day conference held online saved over a quarter of a million U.S Dollars, and 280 tons of polluting carbon dioxide. Saving money and the planet, who can argue with that?
The second group (represented by sales people who like to party on company time, people who don't have the attention span to work productively on their own, and those who can't afford to travel on their own time and enjoy the perks of spending someone else's budget and expense account), claim that real productive working relationships are formed when people meet face to face.
Social capital, they claim, creates more productive collaboration and helps forge lines of communication that far outweigh the costs. Only an inhuman geek wouldn't see the obvious benefit in that. Right?
If, as Fitzgerald once wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," we can all become very, very smart. It's not which of the two meeting styles you choose, but opting for the right one to accomplish your objective.
Anyone who's ever schlepped hours for a meeting that turned out to be largely unproductive, and puts you behind in your other work, knows there has to be a better way. Conversely, when you pine for the social contact with your coworkers that spark really creative ideas, shouting into a speaker phone and watching someone fumble with the whiteboard in GoToMeeting doesn't feel like it's getting the job done either.
The trick is for companies (and that really means the people in them) to make smarter decisions about when to get together (team building, critical real-time answers to pressing questions and high-impact collaboration) and when meeting online makes more sense (when time is of the essence, when short bursts of intense conversation will suffice and when the outcome isn't worth the time, money and hassle of scheduling and traveling).
It's not a question of one or the other. Face-to-face meetings can add real value and help strengthen team ties. They can also be a drain on company resources and an excuse for socializing and spending money at the expense of other things we could be doing.
Web meetings are fine for day-to-day work, but need to be properly led and facilitated to be effective. They also don't create the same kind of relationships that meeting, even occasionally , in person forge.
We need to stop looking at this as a forced choice, and start looking at these as options to make the right one.