Over the last week, I spent some time meeting with both our clients and colleagues in person. I’ve long thought that meeting in person is the only way to have a truly good working relationship with people . However, I have long had a hard time enumerating the benefits to people – something that budget crunches tend to shut down as being an “extra” expense. During this last week, I codified a better explanation for why these meetings are important and it relates to a term now bantered about in the social media context – Ambient Intimacy – which I consider to really be more about understanding the context that our colleagues live in.
First, consider what happens when you meet someone in person: Yes, you have meetings to talk about issues, concerns, exchange information, etc. These are all things you could do if you were on the phone. What happens when the meeting ends? You collect your gear, they collect theirs. You see what kind of gear they are collecting. You see how they carry themselves as they go back to their offices, who they talk to, how they talk to them, and how they work. All of these things provide context to the person that is not obtainable in really any other way. This context is what you use to interpret their actions and motives when you are working with them.
Second, we’ve all heard about the importance of hallway conversations (those conversations that take place before and after a meeting). We always envision the profound comments that people are making about the topic that was just brought up in the meeting (there is no doubt this happens and is valuable), but most of the hall way conversations are NOT deep work changing conversations. They are about the latest hack to the Kindle, or who won that big game last night, or what someone thinks of their new netbook. These don’t add any direct value toward some new company initiative, but they do provide a depth of context about who the people are that you are working with.
Finally, consider the alternative to face-to-face: phone calls and email. When was the last time you sent an email or called a colleague whom you have never met in person to ask them something that was totally unrelated to the purpose of your call. Okay, so maybe you asked them how their spouse was, but did you really have much context to ask more? Phone and email are far too directed as a medium of communication – we do them to serve some purpose. Once we’ve established a friendship with someone, then those medium can be used to extend the context we already have, but rarely if ever is it used in a professional setting to establish a relationship. However, this very same type of conversation by the coffee machine at the office is not only acceptable, but expected. This is where relationships are built.
Making matters worse, if you are spending time with someone and trying to work toward some mutual goal, you are going to have friction and disagreements and often you will strive to resolve these over the phone or email. This is where having context paints a much richer portrait of the person you are interacting with and allows you to interpret their comments in what you know about them; however, during times of distress, people respond differently and if all you know is what it looks like when you disagree with a person, you will build your own context of the person, and it won’t be pretty. This creates an anti-working relationship and can frustrate the mutual goal that you both have.
We live in a world with increasing globalization, where seeing people and gathering together can be a challenge. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the ambient intimacy afforded by Twitter or Facebook can be invaluable to building the context around people that let us have more meaningful interactions with them when we are working together on some problem. This provides a virtual equivalent to many of the kinds of things one can observe by meeting someone in person, but in my opinion, they still fall short of the original ambient intimacy – being together.