One silver lining to the pandemic is that it showed us how effectively we could leverage video conferencing and remote work across a much more comprehensive range of activities than we were previously willing to embrace. As a coach, I am grateful for this. Most of my coachees live nowhere near me and would not be clients if video conferencing had not become an acceptable norm for meetings.

But has the pendulum swung too far the other way? I expect, for many of us, it has. Today I want to challenge your thinking about the trade-offs between meeting remotely and meeting face-to-face.

My Face-to-Face Turning Point

As an engineering leader, I grew up with the phrase, “Always spend the company’s money like you would spend your own.” Overall, this is good advice, encouraging you to think critically before you invest. However, this advice comes up short when your personal spending philosophy is at odds with the organization’s needs.

In arguably the most important project of my career, we partnered with a company based in Europe to accelerate the modernization of our flagship product. I had a limited travel budget and was confident we could collaborate effectively via remote video conferencing. My counterparts in product management and partnerships had a very different philosophy and advocated that we send our senior leaders overseas to meet with the partner face-to-face regularly.

I remember the phone conversation where the two finally convinced me I was being pennywise and pound-foolish. After a long, heated discussion, I acquiesced and agreed to send our senior team to Europe. I am grateful that they persisted.

With the high stakes, there was simply no substitute for sitting in the same room and hammering through the issues. The communication was richer. The collaboration was infinitely more effective. In a video call, when the meeting was over, that would have been it. Both teams would have gone their separate ways. In-person, that meeting was followed up with smaller meetings to continue the work and shared meals that moved us from business partners to close friends. We developed a much stronger shared commitment to the project. I ended up sending my subject matter experts over for weeks at a time to work side-by-side with the team, and our project was unquestionably more successful as a result.

Getting Back Out There

As I attended Educause last week, I was again reminded of the vast divide between talking to someone over video and sitting next to them in person. As I reconnected with so many old friends, I was filled with emotion much more profound than a video call would produce. Our conversations went deeper, and our connections felt more substantial. There is simply no substitute. In the process, I realized how easily I had fallen into a new pattern of working exclusively from home. I had successfully reprogrammed my brain from an in-person to a virtual mentality and, in so doing, lost the memory of just how valuable those in-person interactions could be.

On my last evening at the conference, I drove to Boulder and met four coaching classmates I had never met in person. After nine months together over Zoom, I felt close connections to all of them, and we instantly settled into a very comfortable conversation. That conversation was periodically interrupted, with one of us remarking just how amazing it was that we were all sitting together in the same room. There was a transcendental energy about the evening that filled me with joy.

Your Turn

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for a total return to the office for everyone. I am suggesting that we recognize that the pandemic has lasted long enough to rewire our brains to a new norm. We must acknowledge this and ensure we are not blindly defaulting to keeping everything virtual. 

When was the last time you got your team together in person? Which meetings are significantly less effective when they are held virtually? One that comes to mind is strategic planning. There’s a reason these meetings are often held in a “retreat” format. Not only do you need everyone in the same room, but you also need them away from the day-to-day distractions of the office. I have seen geographically dispersed teams stop doing strategic planning (whether intentionally or not).

What about your personal relationships? I talked to one person at Educause who used it as a springboard to shift out of the pandemic shell they had been operating in. Who are your trusted friends, and when was the last time you sat down with them in person? Is it time to get together for coffee or a meal? Perhaps they are candidates for your personal board of directors.

A Note of Gratitude

At Educause, as I connected with friends and colleagues, one thing surprised me more than anything else. I was amazed and humbled at the number of people who opened our conversation by saying, “I love your blog. I read it every week.” Yes, I know it’s getting many views, but I told myself people were likely clicking on it but not reading it. I’m gratified to know so many of you are finding these valuable and that the format, content, and length are “just right.”

If you are one of those people, please consider sharing my blog with your friends and colleagues. Also, I would love your feedback, whether it’s reinforcing or redirecting feedback. What leadership and life topics would you like to see featured? Message me on LinkedIn with your thoughts, or schedule time with me.And if you’re local, let’s get coffee!

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