Face-to-Face Contact

THE RE-EMERGENCE OF THE ROOM IN A FLAT WORLD

For the past 17 years, I have worked remotely at companies leveraging author Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” principles. With this in mind, it may be surprising that I’m about to extol the virtues of face-to-face collaboration.

Many elements of most jobs can be done anywhere. If you write code to a spec, you can do it in the office, in your bedroom, in the closest Starbucks, or even in the bath – nobody really cares. As long as your work is good and delivered on time, anything goes. If you handle customer service calls, you can do it on the massive floor of a call center or at your kitchen table in Kansas City, as long as your turnaround times and customer satisfaction ratings are up to snuff. If, like me, your job mainly consists of the three Rs – reading, ‘riting,
 and ruminatin’ – then a clean, well-lit place is about all you need.

Except for, that is, when you need the heat, energy, frustration, excitement, and drama of intellectual hand-to-hand combat to find, build, and win the future of your work. In that case, there is no substitute for being in the room.

Different communication tools – including the phone, Skype, email, Slack, video conferences, Jabber, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts, among others – serve their purposes well. But when you want a group of people to come together to really talk, focus, and energize each other; to really be creative and innovative; and to really sell ideas to each other and dig deep, then the benefits of being in the same physical space are difficult to beat.

Though collaboration tools are continuously being improved, they are still not ideal for intensive creative work. We use many non-verbal cues to communicate during face-to-face conversations, but these become difficult to pick up on and interpret during digital interactions. Laptop cameras that point up from a 75-degree angle provide an unusual visual for communicating – you’d never peer down at somebody when you were in a meeting room with them, nor would you be looking up their nose. This awkward way of conversing can easily break your concentration as you wonder whether the person you’re talking to realizes that they’re being presented in a rather unflattering way.

On top of that, without good network connectivity and a strong wifi signal, you may experience latency issues that can make a video-based conversation 
feel more reminiscent of a scene from 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than a modern-day business meeting. This is particularly true when dealing with colleagues in the developing world. While emerging technologies, such as VR, may improve the situation in time, these are still far from widespread adoption. Likewise, presenting yourself through your Bitmoji may catch on eventually – but probably not this side of 2025.

Being in the room together allows – and forces – people to concentrate, avoid the distractions of their cellphones, respect the other people in the room, give their full attention to the creative process, be present, be engaged, and contribute. This type of attention 
is compromised when one appears only as an online presence. Though lots of less-creative collaborative work can be done perfectly well with remote workers, more elaborate projects involving two or more people are still best done while sitting across a table from one another.

Many organizations and companies are recognizing these trends and reacting to them. IBM, one of the early pioneers of a distributed service model, has now reversed course and mandated that all of its US employees work out of 10 major hub cities. General Electric has relocated to Boston, MA, from suburban Connecticut, in order to refresh its employee pool with a younger cadre of workers who want to be downtown and to have in-person interactions with their coworkers. Cornell University has established a tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City (away from its main campus in rural upstate New York) in order to tap into concentrated groupings of next-generation talent. In-person interaction is being recognized again as 
a differentiator in the war for talent – talent being the most important ingredient in any organization’s future-of-work recipe.

The technology that binds the global village has never been as advanced or sophisticated as it is now; 460 billion devices connected to the internet means that work is happening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year around the globe. The world is truly more flat than ever – ironically, this flatness means that “the room” matters more than ever, too.

A new hybrid model is emerging in which the benefits of remote work and the catalytic heat generated
 by “the room” are melded. Now, if we only we could use astral projection or teleportation to get ourselves from home to office… then, we might really have something!

the author

Ben Pring

Ben is VP and managing director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work.