The Human Touch - The Value of Face-to-Face Communication

An image of Rick Springfield, singer of Human Touch, behind a laptop.

Will the Singularity ever occur and mark the rise of our robot overlords? It's possible, I guess, but for as much as technology brings to the world, the one thing it can't replace is the value of face-to-face human communication.

We live in a time where remote communication is instant. The far corners of the world are literally in the palm of our hands. I can get in touch with a friend in Abu Dhabi just as easily as I can contact a neighbour. Social networking extends my reach to multiple people instantly and allows me to keep in touch with old friends and colleagues with whom, just 30 years ago, I likely would have lost touch forever.

But for all the advances we've made in technology, nothing has come along yet that replaces what you get by sitting in a room with someone.

Our business affords us the luxury of working remotely with clients -- and even within our own office. At times, this makes sense, but the value of developing work relationships through face-to-face communication should not be undervalued.

From body language responses to questions and ideas (that ol' Canadian politeness can easily be betrayed by a sideways glance or shift in body positioning) to simply hearing the intent behind words that can easily be lost through electronic communication, being in the same room as someone can make a world of difference.

I've worked for a couple of companies in my past that had their head offices in the U.S. (and one in Australia). Sure, e-mail and phones worked well, but I noticed a dramatic difference when I developed a more personal relationship through face-to-face meetings. Human nature is that we tend to go out of our way more often for people we know or like. A request from "Canada" is different than a request from "Jay."

Sure, this is all anecdotal. So what's the tangible value? Wanting to add hard numbers to this post, I searched this morning for statistics. Coincidentally enough, Hubspot posted a blog on this just yesterday, so I'll invite you to check them all out there. But the relevant highlights are this:

  • 95 per cent of people say face-to-face meetings are essential for long-term business success (greatbusinessschools.org, by way of Hubspot.com);
  • for every $1 companies invest in business travel, it receives a value of $12.50 in return (greatbusinessschools.org, by way of Hubspot.com); and
  • 97 per cent of meeting attendees cite small face-to-face meetings of fewer than 10 particpants as their preferred form of communication (imago and Loughborough University School of Business and Economics research, by way of Forbes.com, with a detour through Hubspot.com)

Is one better than the other? Maybe -- but why use our opportunities in isolation? Like most things in life, it isn't about either or -- it's about using all the tools in our tool belt effectively, at the right time, to build something greater than its component parts. Remote meetings work just fine -- but they can be complemented dramatically by in-person contact at key intervals.

Now, sure, this requires another skill set. Just showing up doesn't guarantee a bond. And some people just aren't comfortable talking to real-life humans. Some people are fine saying anything behind the comfort of a keyboard, but are completely different face-to-face. Conversely, there are those who are absolutely ebullient and gregarious in person, but can't translated that to the digital environment.

And some people just get nervous talking with other people. But it's not about putting on an act, "pretending" to be something else, or faking it. As with all communication -- off-line or off -- I'm a firm believer in being yourself. People are people -- whether it's in social or business settings -- and connecting on that level is something everyone does every day. Applying that level of interaction to your business dealings can have long-term, positive impacts.

The key is just being human. After all, the Singularity hasn't arrived.

Yet.

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