Nowadays, businesses and employees can do just about anything virtually. Unparalleled advances in messaging and video software have empowered more than 40 percent of American workers to work remotely at least some of the time—and one in three employees now spend a whopping 80 percent of their work hours outside the office. Companies that employ thousands have abandoned their physical flagships for virtual offices connecting employees around the globe.
Yet for all those advances, research shows time and again there’s simply no substitute for meeting face to face. More than eight in ten executives prefer in-person meetings to virtual contact, noting they create space for tough, timely business decisions and foster more complex strategic thinking. Bringing teams together is also a boon to the economy. In 2016 alone, U. S. companies held 1.9 million meetings that sustained 5.9 million jobs and generated more than $100 billion in local, state, and federal taxes.
But successful meetings are about more than that. It’s the intangibles that matter—a new relationship forged over a drink, a relaxing yoga class after a long day of panels or a level of trust from a casual conversation and a handshake.
“In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video,” said Paul Axtell, corporate trainer and author of the book “Meetings Matter.” “It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.”
The power of face-to-face time
How important is it for existing colleagues and potential business partners to spend time together in the same space? Research shows face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than those sent by email, and that a physical handshake promotes cooperation and influences negotiation outcomes for the better.
MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab spent hundreds of hours tracking performance drivers across industries by collecting data from electronic badges that covered everything from tone of voice to body language. The results showed unequivocally that the most valuable communication is done in-person, and that typically 35 percent of the variation in a given team’s performance was explained by the number of times team members actually spoke face-to-face.
Anecdotal evidence paints a similar picture. Organizational behavior experts argue that face-to-face meetings are the best way to capture a person’s full attention, cutting through the multi-task tendency that focuses on too many things at once.
René Siegel, a professor of public relations at San Jose State University and founder and chief executive officer of Connext, a Silicon Valley marketing and communications agency, said it all comes down to the fact that no matter the industry, everyone is ultimately in the people business. And she clarifies a fundamental difference between business conversations and deeper, more meaningful business relationships. Such bonds are forged only when people spend time talking about things that matter to them, whether that’s a particular innovation, their favorite sports team or recipe.
Making meetings count
Ask any employee who’s ever been stuck for hours in a drab conference room and they’ll tell you: not all meetings or events are created equal. That’s where planners and venues come in.
“Meetings are not about the four walls of a ballroom, but the ability to imagine the experience to ensure attendees feel welcomed and engaged,” said Frank Passanante, senior vice president of Group Sales and Industry Relations for Hilton, which hosts gatherings for anywhere from 10 to 20,000 attendees at more than 5,200 hotels around the world.
At Hilton, that means offering programs that go non-traditional by incorporating wellness and sustainability elements into their regular format, Passanante said. One example is Hilton’s Meet with Purpose offerings, ranging from a “Yoga and Yogurt” package that taps into the latest research on how mindfulness can recharge the brain to an interactive dining experience where seated guests clip fresh greens directly to their plates with a “Cut & Create” salad offering.
As the global leader in hospitality, Hilton team members are expertly qualified to help plan the perfect meeting or event in top destinations around the world, from New York City to Singapore. With properties in 105 countries and territories, and a dedicated team committed to providing a best-in-class experience, Hilton can help planners provide meaningful gatherings that ensure attendees feel welcomed and engaged.
“A spirit of innovation is at the heart of everything we do, from the services and technologies that we offer to our venues themselves, which are designed to spark creativity and inventive thinking,” Passanante said. “Many of our meeting and event spaces are seamlessly equipped with technology that is integrated into walls and furniture, giving attendees the latest, state-of-the-art technology they desire, in an environment that still feels warm and residential.”
And Hilton clients say they see a difference.
“Events are a platform to translate our business strategy into bold, immersive experiences that accelerate engagement with audiences,” said Nancy Neipp, senior director of global events at Cisco, who has hosted events at Hilton properties. She handles planning for Cisco Live, the company’s flagship customer conference, which draws 28,000 attendees and offers more than 1,000 educational sessions. It’s a massive gathering that sets the tone for the company’s entire year.
Despite the size or the innovative character of the event, however, what matters most is fostering those priceless moments of one-on-one connection.
“You see someone in the hall, you have a conversation. Or you follow-up with a speaker—you have an actual face-to-face—right after a session,” said Kati Quigley, senior director of marketing, business applications and industry for Microsoft, who has always worked with Hilton.
In her years on the job, Quigley has seen a partner from Europe connect with one from Arizona while simply hanging out in a common area at an event, forging a partnership that otherwise never would have come about. In an elevator ride after a breakout session, a colleague told her he secured a million-dollar deal he never would have made had he not been there.
“You want to get [people] out of their normal environment, because it makes them think differently,” Quigley said. “You build this engaging experience that shakes up their normal view of the world and gets them to look up from their computers or away from their phones.”
This article originally appeared on the Washington Post website.
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