How being online can trump face-to-face

Explores the possibility that online meetings might actually be better than their face-to-face equivalents.

We wouldn’t have come up with the term onlignment for this blog if we didn’t believe in the value of online communication. Of course we all know the practical arguments in favour of meeting online:
  • You save time by avoiding the need for travel to a central location.
  • You save money for the same reason, bucket loads of it.
  • Oh and you also happen to save the planet.
These are powerful arguments but they’re all about saving resources, about efficiency. What they don’t tell us is what we might gain or lose by switching medium so dramatically. At first glance, it looks like we’re going to be net losers:
  • We lose visual contact with our fellow participants (unless of course we have the hardware and the bandwidth to support webcams all round, which might be normal in years to come, but is still a rarity in a work environment).
  • We haven’t got those body language clues which tell us who’s paying attention and who’s slipped out of consciousness.
  • We can’t interact physically so group hugs are out of the question (some of us won’t be too bothered about that).
  • We can’t share a drink in the bar afterwards.
I must admit that, in the past, I have found it quite hard to come up with the counter arguments; the ways in which being online adds to the effectiveness of the experience. But I do have a few suggestions:
  • It’s much easier to get an expert who’s based in some remote location to present to your group by web conferencing than it is face-to-face. The time commitment for the expert is reduced from days to a few hours; the cost argument is just as strong.
  • Most web conferencing systems allow you to record the session so participants can refer back to the content at any point in the future, and so those who missed the session when it was live can still gain some benefit.
  • Text chat serves as a back channel that allows participants to interact with each other to discuss the content, share resources, exchange contact details, etc. without bothering the facilitator. This is really difficult to achieve face-to-face, yet adds a huge amount of value.
  • Participants who are not interested in what’s currently being presented or discussed can drop out to do something more useful. Again, this is really difficult to achieve face-to-face without being rude.
Actually that’s quite a reasonable list. Can you think of any other ways in which being online trumps being face-to-face? If so, why not share your ideas by replying to this post?