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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

Escape the virtual & rediscover the magic!

Source: The Economist

What's the value of face-to-face interactions in a rapidly transforming digital world? Can everything now be done online? What's the point of spending the time and money to meet in person? Will rapidly evolving, deep, immersive technologies take us to places we have never been before? Once experienced, why would we ever want to come back to the “real world”?

All these questions and many more are being asked by business leaders, the media and as it turns out, my clients.

At a recent "virtual partner update" one my clients asked the assembled online collective to help them explore the future of executive learning and development (L&D). They posed the question, "is there any value in face-to-face engagement?" At first, I wasn’t sure this was a serious question. As the disjointed discussion unfolded (somewhat ironically, we were connected via Webex - surely the most unintuitive, poor quality digital platform on the planet), it became increasingly clear this was indeed an issue many thought valid.

Let me be clear, I don’t consider myself a luddite. I love technology. A substantial part of my career has been spent exploring how digital, connective technologies can indeed transform a business. I may no longer be a twenty-something astride the bits and bytes of Silicon Valley but I believe I now better understand how the power of technology can be harnessed by business, where it adds enormous value and (importantly) where it does not.

Online, digital interactions have (bar Webex) come on leaps and bound, accelerated of course by the need to do business through the restrictions of a global pandemic. Just as employers and employees are grappling with the need to return to the office (see my previous blog on this topic) so leaders, salespeople, conference organisers, L&D professionals, workshop facilitators and strategists are all debating the need and value of gathering in person vs. online.

The obvious answer (to me at least) is “it depends” or “both”, perhaps there may even a “hybrid” solution worth considering. But understanding when and how “it depends” I believe is harder and more important to ascertain. Those on my client update call who advocated that face-to- face no longer has a role, I believe are wrong. At the same time, I have been astonished as to what can be achieved with online-only interactions. If someone had told me, a mere 2 years ago, that I could identify, position, sell and deliver a substantial strategy advisory engagement, without ever meeting the client, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. And yet I have, several times. The more pertinent question maybe however, would I / they choose to do so again, unless we absolutely had to?

Online is great for inclusivity, accessibility, scalability, reducing costs (let’s not deny it!), timesaving, asynchronous engagement. It can work well for instructor-led learning (digital “chalk and talk”), simulations, disseminating case studies and required reading. It’s very effective for procedural engagements, tracking and ensuring compliance, experiencing rich multi-media and information sharing.

Where online sucks (and I really mean sucks) is where you need to build rapport, establish relationships, develop empathy, debate strategic nuance, learn from your peers, share and debate complex ideas, be truly creative, capture serendipity and spontaneity. Having recently started running in-person workshops again, there is a euphoria, a certain magic that simply can’t be replicated by an online gathering. The emotional engagement is so much stronger. The joy of simply being back together again is so palpable.

The great news is that enlightened organisations really get this. I was delighted to hear Marc Benioff announce that tech giant Salesforce is building a large ranch, as a gathering place for his employees, in an attempt to reinvigorate the company’s culture in a post-pandemic era. Partly inspired by GE’s legendary Crotonville campus and by Disney theme parks, where Benioff notes, “you smell Disney, you see Disney, you feel Disney, you hear Disney. That’s what I want my new employees to feel for Salesforce. That’s the culture coming through.”

Hybrid meetings? Don’t even go there. We will need to see a vast improvement in connective and collaborative technology before someone not in the room doesn’t feel like a 3rd class citizen. Viv Groskop captured the dilemma of trying to run post-pandemic hybrid events in The Financial Times just recently. She also helped give a name to the magic and euphoria I experienced when once again running in-person workshops. “Affiliative social engagement” – what psychologists call the shared experience of being in a room together, laughing together, applauding together, moving together, being truly affiliative.

In closing her article, Viv highlighted a great quote from marketing guru Seth Godin. “Synchronised, real-time interaction is precious. It creates magic. We shouldn’t waste it on bureaucracy or false displays of control. It’s better saved for moments of connection and possibility.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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