Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D
In 2009, IBM reported that 40 percent of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries were working remotely. That policy allowed IBM to sell off its office buildings at a gain of almost $2 billion. Hailed as a savvy business strategy, the trend of telecommuting was soon in full swing.
Impressive, right? Why then, in March of this year, did IBM pull thousands of its workers back into the workplace? Was it the desperate move of a company whose profits had fallen, as some pundits suggest? Or might it be the result of something else – something that has triggered companies like Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy to also pull back their work-from-home home policies, and corporations like Apple and Google to pass on the concept of telecommuting in the first place?
Consider, for instance, the increasing emphasis on collaboration and the corresponding realization that any collaborative effort is highly dependent upon well-developed personal relationships among participants. While remote workers might be highly efficient with individual efforts, nothing builds collaborative relationships better than being physically present.
Blame it on the power of body language.
In face-to-face encounters, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us only partially from the words they use. We get most of the message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal cues, facial expressions, and physical movements. And we rely on nonverbal feedback – the instantaneous responses of others – to help us gauge how well our ideas are being accepted.
So potent is the nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements, and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, the brain’s ”mirror neurons” mimic not just other people’s behaviors, but their feelings as well. (A reaction referred to as “emotional contagion.”)
We were born with this innate capability. In fact our brains need and expect these more primitive and significant channels of information. When we are denied these interpersonal cues, the brain struggles and communication suffers.
Another nonverbal component that comes solely in person, is touch. Usually considered to be the most primitive and essential form of communication, our brains are programmed to feel closer to someone who’s touched us. The person who touches also feels more connected. It’s a compelling force and even momentary touching can create a human bond. A touch on the forearm that lasts a mere 1/40 of a second can make the receiver not only feel better but also see the giver as being kinder and warmer.
We also know that face-to-face encounters are where innovation takes place. In fact, innovation is rarely the outcome of any formal meeting, and even more rarely the product of virtual meetings. Instead, creative solutions are most often the byproduct of employees having informal conversation — comparing experiences in hallways or exchanging ideas at the coffee station.
If relationships are the key to innovation and collaboration, trust is at its heart. When it comes to developing trust, there’s no substitution for getting people face to face.. Building trust is a multisensory process, and it’s only when people are physically together that are they able to use all their senses. At my seminars on collaborative leadership, audience members tell me about the challenges and frustrations of trying to get their virtual teams to bond. Although it can be done, various studies confirm that it is more difficult to build trust in virtual teams, harder for informal leaders to emerge, tougher to create genuine dialogue, and easier for misunderstandings to escalate.
If your organization actively promotes telecommuting and virtual teams (often a necessity with today’s global workforce), you’ll find that just one initial face-to-face meeting will to a long way to sustaining team spirit and increasing productivity when everyone goes back to their respective workplaces.
As Michael Massari, Ceasars Entertainment’s Senior Vice President of National Meetings and Events, told me: “No matter what industry you work in, we are all in the people business. Regardless of how tech-savvy you may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of participants, engage them in the conversation, and drive productive collaboration.”
Whether working from their homes or globally dispersed, remote workers are part of business reality today. But in our world of video meetings and teleconferences, the value of face-to-face encounters can often get overlooked.
Or maybe not. Just ask Apple, Google, and IBM.