In defence of face-to-face meetings

We’re firm believers in the benefits of collaboration, and can’t wait to get back to seeing our teams in person.

It’s been an odd 18 months. Like many businesses, the pandemic has forced some big changes to how we operate. It’s been challenging at times, but not everything was bad. As Nick describes in his most recent post, the lockdown experience actually helped improve some of our company policies. It cast a spotlight on the importance of work-life balance.

We’re fortunate enough to be capable of doing our jobs from home. The tools we use to design and build websites are (unsurprisingly) digital. From that point of view, our workflow wasn’t significantly impacted during lockdown.

But it wasn’t ideal. Working from home presents one big hurdle for our teams. The ability to collaborate. This includes meetings with both our internal colleagues and our clients. Like everyone else, we relied on tools like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. These allowed us to run the meetings and workshops that are so important to our process.

Notes on a virtual year

This switch to online meetings made us realise quite how much of our process involves collaboration. We create products that meet user needs and organisational goals. Without being able to communicate with our stakeholders effectively, we can’t understand these factors. It would make our job impossible.

18 months into the pandemic, most organisations are now fully used to remote working. Not just that, but they are embracing this greater flexibility in the long term. This has been a silver lining to this whole coronavirus situation. It has also led to a notion that online meetings are now the ’new normal’.

We’re no strangers to virtual meetings. We were using these tools long before the pandemic started. They’re super handy for quick discussions where the logistics of travel wouldn’t be worthwhile. But they aren’t without drawbacks.

The drawbacks of going remote

Remote meeting tools are an incredible asset. We couldn’t be without them. But when it comes to important project meetings, face-to-face collaboration will always be our preference. Milestone meetings like project kick-offs, discovery interviews and presentations are so much better when done in person.

Take kick-off workshops as an example of this. These sessions are inherently tactile. We’ve talked in the past about the benefits of structuring meetings around activities. We love to draw on boards, and write on sticky notes. Workshop sessions offer far better opportunities to collaborate than just sitting around talking. They get people engaged, and generate a lot more enthusiasm for the work ahead.

Remote workshopping tools have come a long way, especially throughout the pandemic. Applications like Miro and Figma are trying hard to recreate these kinds of meeting experiences virtually. During lockdown we used these tools to continue running workshops remotely. It worked…. to some extent. The trouble was that we couldn’t reach the same levels of engagement. Most workshop participants simply don’t feel as comfortable contributing when it’s virtual. The digital barrier makes communication more challenging, and people fatigue quickly.

Let’s start working together again

Although Coronavirus is certainly still with us, the UK is beginning a return to the workplace. That said, most organisations have embraced the notion of flexible working. This means the logistics of having in-person sessions will continue to be challenging.

Don’t misunderstand. We love this new shift towards work-life balance. Here at Pixel Fridge we’ve fully embraced flexible working policies. Our team will be encouraged to split their time between home and the office as suits their circumstances. But we still emphasise the importance of coming in regularly. It’s crucial for our team’s ability to communicate.

Being fully remote would be a terrible loss to our working dynamic. When it comes to those big meetings and workshops, there are many benefits to being in the same space.

Real life meetings = Fewer distractions

For many of us, the home isn’t a great environment for productivity. The are so many distractions present, from kids to the fridge. These can be tricky enough, but remote meetings pose even further potential for distraction.

Having to join a meeting through your computer screen means that the other notifications and apps are still firing away in the background. Slack alerts, emails, and just your plain old web browser are but a click away. It’s easy to find yourself drifting during a remote meeting and attempting to multi-task. Something you’d never do if it were face-to-face.

Remote meetings make it harder to escape distractions. It can be difficult to ensure that everyone is fully engaging with the task at hand. This can be problematic when people miss key points in an important discussion.

We can’t wait to get back to seeing our clients in person, and working with our teams face-to-face more regularly.

Real life meetings = Improved empathy

Body language and facial expressions form such a huge part of how we communicate. Experts agree that 70-90% of communication is determined by nonverbal queues. When you think about it, we lose a staggering amount of this with remote meetings. This is especially true when we’re running a screen share or trying to complete another activity.

How do we know if somebody has a point to make, but is struggling to speak up? When meeting face-to-face, it’s much easier to read people. Our experience as user researchers gives us some insight to this. There can be a great deal of disparity between what someone says, and what they genuinely feel. Usability issues can be missed, and crucial feedback can be skipped over if we miss when someone is confused, or nervous to make a point.

Real life meetings = Increased energy

A change of scenery can make a huge difference. In our experience, teams get a real boost from being in a fresh environment, engaging with real-life human beings. This is especially true after the recent period of isolation we’ve all been forced to take. Zoom Fatigue is very real. Nobody wants to spend hours crooned over a laptop screen. Humour and casual banter is also much easier in-person. It helps us to connect and engage with our colleagues.

When kicking off a new project, we usually set aside an entire morning for an interactive workshop with our clients. In real life, this is an ideal length of time. Teams go away feeling energised and excited about the project.

When we’ve attempted to run these same kinds of sessions remotely, we have to limit the length to 90 minutes… at the very maximum. After an hour of remote meetings, people start to become tired. Remote workshops don’t create the same amount of excitement, and as a result the output is rarely as useful.

The digital barrier makes communication more challenging, and people fatigue quickly.

Real life meetings = A lower barrier to engage

When meeting face-to-face, there’s simply less to go wrong. We try to structure important meetings as ‘workshops’. We’ll complete activities, and encourage our clients to engage. Although online tools like Miro and Figma have tried hard to recreate this format, our less tech-savvy clients do struggle a bit more to get involved.

Unlike whizzy digital tools, everybody understands pen and paper. It’s old-fashioned, sure. But nobody can argue that physical workshops make it easier to doodle, share and generate fresh ideas. They provide more opportunities to engage with everyone.

Remote meetings still have a place

Reading this post, it might seem that we hate online meetings. This really isn’t the case. Virtual meeting tools are an absolute marvel. They’ve allowed our industry to keep thriving throughout the pandemic.

When teams are spread out, remote meetings offer us the means to stay in touch. For that reason they’ll always have a place in our ways of working. But they aren’t always the best option. These tools are a convenience when we’re presented with a less-than-ideal setup. When it comes to key project meetings we’d prefer to have them in person. Face-to-face sessions are more productive, effective and enjoyable.

We can’t wait to get back to seeing our clients in person, and working with our teams more regularly.

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