In Person Meetings Must Get Better (2020 Apr)

by Barry A. Liebling

Until the Covid-19 pandemic catastrophe disrupted nearly everything, a personal meeting was the popular default. Certainly telephone conference calls have been a common occurrence for more than one hundred years. “Long distance calls” used to be expensive, and that would put a damper on phone meetings. But that is ancient history, and telephone conferences are now essentially free. Meetings employing video technology are a step up from audio-only communication and have been reasonably-priced since before the start of the century. But electronic get-togethers have generally been regarded as a second-choice – something to do if it is really inconvenient to assemble in one place.

The developments of the last few months have been highly consequential. A huge number of people have become accustomed to using video conferencing services (Zoom stands out as the most successful supplier, for now). They have found (as have I) that it is possible to conduct a meeting for business, for education, and for recreation and accomplish many things that used to be done primarily in a real-time, face-to-face setting. While previously a lot of people were shy about trying out the new technology, the pandemic disruption forced them to experience something new, and the experiments revealed that video conferencing is easy and surprisingly effective.

So what will the world be like after the pandemic ends? It is obvious that in-person meetings will occur less frequently. The video technology will continue to improve and for many will become the new default. And that will have a profound effect on live, in-person gatherings. Meetings will have to get better.

In the past there had to be a good reason to skip a physical meeting and conduct business or classroom time remotely. In the new world this will be reversed. Why go to all the trouble of traveling to a meeting when we can do nearly everything online?

So advocates of personal meetings will have to be assure that the live venue is in some ways really superior. Furthermore, they will have to communicate to potential attendees that traditional meetings have advantages that cannot be duplicated electronically.

Some people are strongly attracted to physical affiliation. They express this need when they attend concerts, sports events, restaurants, and coffee houses. They want to be within touching distance of others and feel uncomfortable when they are isolated. For those who enjoy being in the presence of others there is no question that in-person meetings beat out electronic substitutes. When meeting planners emphasize the haptic, tactile advantages of traditional gatherings they will get the attention of those with a high need for affiliation.

But notice that some people are not into close mingling. They might welcome the remote video method as a way of avoiding unwanted personal contacts. This suggests that meeting planners will have to structure their events so that attendees will have the option of avoiding physical contact. Convincing shy people to go to meetings when they have a choice to decline is a challenge that will require a lot of ingenuity. I expect that the typical meeting room will be more spacious and less crowded to accommodate those that want to maintain their distance. An outside observer will notice that physical venues will be in some ways more luxurious after the pandemic.

With the Covid-19 crisis a new dimension has been introduced – fear of contracting a deadly disease. In the old days when you entered a closed, crowded space – at worst you worried about catching a common cold. That is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. In the current crisis there is a genuine possibility of being infected by a virus that might end your life. So meeting planners will take tangible steps to reduce the health risk to attendees. Rooms will be cleaner than ever before. Shaking hands may be replaced by bowing. People who are not well (perhaps with a fever) will be identified and screened out before the meeting or classroom starts. In short, the environment of future in-person meetings is likely to be more hygienic.

Now consider how in-person encounters are – in-principle – superior to remote electronic communication. The information you can obtain from fellow attendees is richer, more detailed, and more informative when everyone is in the same room at the same time. When I am in a Zoom meeting I notice that I have a difficult time (compared to conventional meetings) interpreting how others are reacting to the comments made by the participants. Was someone’s remark regarded as astute, funny, or off-base? In a physical room I can easily discern people’s responses. In an electronic setting I find that I miss many of the cues that are readily apparent in conventional meetings.

Then there is the issue of confidentiality. Suppose I want to confer with several people and intend to discuss topics that are not meant to be shared with outsiders. I understand the difficulty of maintaining secrets under the best of circumstances. If the meeting is in-person there is no fool-proof method of assuring that sensitive information does not leave the room.

But contrast a personal meeting with a video conference. Once an electronic venue is used it is not possible to maintain confidentiality. The service provider certainly has access to everything that transpires. There may be a promise that the content of your conversation will not be revealed, but the promise can be broken. Genuine, old-fashioned meetings are inherently more secure. Meeting planners can emphasize this feature to convince people to attend.

The bottom line is that video conferencing is a powerful rival to conventional in-person meetings. Traditional, physical meetings will have to compete, and to stay viable in person meetings must show tangible advantages that are recognized by attendees. The popularity of conventional meetings in the new world remains to be seen.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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