The way we interact and work with others has changed drastically over the past few decades. Email, chat, and teleconferencing have bridged huge gaps of geography and facilitated us to work across boundaries.
This flexibility has allowed individuals to work from home so they can tend a sick child or deal with other real-life complications. Work/life balance is tough, but these advances in technology have helped bridge the gap. While all of today’s communication options come in handy, there’s still real value in face-to-face communication. In this post, I’ll suggest when in-person meetings are helpful and offer some tips about how to conduct them.
The Disadvantages of Written Communication
It is very difficult to express intent and motivation in an email or chat. When we are typing our communication, we are usually more formal than we would in person. This frequently leads to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings can create tension between team members, causing lost productivity and lack of enjoyment in our work.
Written words can also leave much room for interpretation. Our interpretation of the words of a teammate or customer is unfortunately affected by the situations we are in—both professionally and personally. If we are frustrated, it may come across as anger. Maybe we feel a loss of control over a recent shortcoming, so we interpret even constructive criticism in a negative light. This can damage the spirit and effectiveness of our team.
The Advantages of Face Time
As we’ve seen on social media these days, it is easy for people to lash out or spark controversy with their words. This often leads to anger and mistrust. It is very easy to attack ideas—and the people they come from—when you don’t have to see them. On the other hand, meeting face-to-face helps level the playing field. It helps us better realize that we are all human beings, with our own quirks and interests.
In-person communication also allows us to use gestures, facial expressions, and body language to better express our intent. We can more easily crack jokes and have fun, without having to keep our guard up. This gives us a greater sense of freedom in our communication and boosts creativity.
Most of all, meeting with our team creates bonds. We share more personal stories and interests. Though these bonds may not have a direct measurable impact on productivity, establishing them is invaluable.
When Face-to-Face Time is Crucial
It can be difficult to make the call as to when an in-person meeting is necessary. However, there are frequently cues that meeting face-to-face would be helpful.
I can’t seem to get my point across!
In a group setting, it can be difficult to align points of view. If you feel like your points are being ignored or misunderstood, don’t hesitate to contact the specific person you’re in conflict with. Do this by walking over to their desk or picking up the phone after the meeting. Trying to conquer misunderstandings between two people can be difficult to resolve in the context of a group discussion. It can waste a lot of other people’s time, which can cause the overall frustration of the team to grow, which isn’t helpful to your ecosystem.
Personal commitments or impediments
When you are in the context of working on a project, it is hard to communicate any influence that personal situations may be having on you or others in the group. You normally don’t want to air your own personal life to the team. However, discussing these situations person-to-person can help remind each other that you do have a personal life, and that you/they may have a few hurdles to cross so you can get back to focusing on your tasks at work.
Having a one-on-one discussion reminds each of you that you are a person and not a cog in the system. Life is complex and can’t always be completely decoupled from our careers, as much as we all wish that were the case.
When there are differing roles/responsibilities on a team, there can be conflict in aligning your goals, even though overall we all just want to get stuff done. These conflicts tend to arise more frequently when pressures are high. Upper management may be putting pressure on your project manager or product owner if deadlines or release dates seem to be at risk.
It is frustrating when someone is responsible to deliver something but isn’t capable of contributing to finishing a given task. Rather than trying to explain technical details in a public audience, having a one-on-one may help your project manager understand that you are making progress and being proactive with the hurdles that stand in your way. As a bonus, getting another perspective on the problem outside of a meeting may help you work out a better strategy.
Teams should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of team communication. As deadlines get closer and pressures rise, it is easy to drop back into old habits and even ignore communication channels so that we can focus on the task at hand. All too frequently, project management tends to add more meetings in order to keep on track.
But getting all team members in the mix and adding more meetings can take time away from getting the actual work done. It is much more effective to pull key individuals into these meetings, if they are really necessary. Getting too much input from too many individuals usually leads to thrashing and increased pressure across the board.
Having all developers focused on tackling emergent needs is ineffective. It’s a good idea to identify a point person for triaging these requests so they don’t halt the train when they pop up. Most emergencies don’t require immediate attention—especially not the attention of the full team.
Getting to the Core
Our work shouldn’t define our lives. We all have family and friends that are (hopefully) more valuable than our jobs and obligations. Teams will never get along perfectly. Breaking down the walls between each other and working through disagreements is necessary and even therapeutic. Taking on the challenges of real-world projects as a team rather than as individuals is much more effective and far more enjoyable.
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