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Lifts and laptops – The problem with virtual meetings

I like to regard myself as being pro-digital and try my best to keep up with the latest innovations.  I use Evernote as my virtual notepad, WordPress for blogging, MailChimp for publishing Adventurer’s Monthly, Basecamp for collaborative projects, Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/G+ for social networking and a variety of other apps to organise my travel, my diary and even my car parking.  The one thing that I am yet to fully embrace though is virtual meeting technology.  Fair enough, I use Skype or Google Hangouts to chat with people, but I’m yet to be convinced that we can achieve the same quality of interaction on a screen compared to being in a room together.  Clients of mine continually ask if group development work can be conducted virtually, to save on time or travel costs, but I always resist and stick to my guns, insisting that face-to-face is the only way of doing the deeply relational work that they want me to.  The problem is that I’ve never had a good enough reason to explain why I believe this, other than it simply doesn’t feel the same.  I end up sounding like a Luddite!  It was only when I was recently in a crowded lift (elevator) that I started to understand what is lacking in virtual working.

Lifts are fascinating places.   They are windowless boxes in which strangers come together to experience moments of awkwardness whilst they travel vertically up and down tall buildings!  One of the greatest gifts that smart phones have given the human race is that they provide us with something to do to avoid making eye contact, humming a tune or making polite conversation about “going up” or “going down” whilst in a lift.  Go into any big lift nowadays and everyone seems to be using their phone, even if there is no signal!

Lifts are awkward because the constrained environment gives us an unfamiliar type of space to interact in.  I read somewhere that where people choose to stand in a lift pretty much corresponds to the way in which dots are laid out on a six sided die and it seems to be a reasonably accurate observation.  (i.e. one person will stand in the middle, two will stand diagonally apart from each other, six in two rows of three etc.).   This happens because the space between people is relational and carries meaning – we move and change our position based on the position of others.  Imagine a lift packed full of 15 people with everyone standing closely together.  If we were to remove 13 of those people, leaving just two people standing right next to each other, the meaning of that space changes and the space between them will suddenly seem really inappropriate.

I’ve started to conclude that the reason I dislike virtual meeting technology is because of its failure to replicate the social awkwardness of lifts!  Whilst the technology is good in that it allows us to see the facial expressions of others, the relational space between people on a computer screen carries little or no meaning.   I have an experiment in mind to prove this….Imagine putting 12 laptops with 12 people on Skype together in a lift in a way that people can see each other’s faces.   Imagine moving them closer together and then further apart.  Imagine moving them into different patterns – huddling 3 together away from the other 9 for example.  I suspect that, other than effecting how well the camera picks up the faces of others, it would make very little difference to the experience of interacting because the relational space between people would carry no additional meaning.  If we were to then repeat the experiment, with the same people actually in the lift,  they would describe the experience as very different.

So, I now have a vaguely plausible reason to explain that, whilst Skype (etc) is perfectly fine for a conversation, until the technology is advanced enough to make the virtual-relational space between people more meaningful, face to face is the only way in which I’m believe we can do deep group development work.

However, from what I have recently read about advances in virtual reality, in particular ‘digital empathy’,  this day may not be too far away.

I’ll be first in the queue to have a go on the virtual lift experience!

  1. John Burrett says:

    Great article, very interesting, and I suspect, spot-on. For deep contact, indeed face to face is probably indispensable. But really really close communication isn’t always needed, at least in my work, so digital meetings come in to play. I think the trick with digital meetings is to practice and work out any technological hitches, keep any presented content very visual, and proceed carefully, ensuring that outstanding questions are handled as you go. Using the best technology you can also helps a lot – using quality digital meeting platforms, computers and headphones. That costs a bit more,, but nothing is more irritating to a virtual audience than hearing each other as if they are under water (you hear that, Skype?).

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