More Thoughts on the Value of Presence

I seem to be inundated these days with articles and blog posts about the differences between “being there” and interacting with people remotely.

Just yesterday I blogged about the story in last Sunday’s New York Times about the continuing importance of face-to-face interaction (“Place Still Matters – A Lot“).

And now I want to refer you to a recent article in Impact Magazine (a publication produced by OM Workspace, the contract furniture division of OfficeMax).

The article (“Face to Face: Design and Technology for Collaboration“), by Elizabeth Hockerman, explores an important but all-too-often unasked question:

Mobile technology provides untethered freedom. So why do millions of people still partake in the dreaded rush-hour commute to work?

The answer, of course, is that they want to be with other people – and there’s still an almost-universal gut sense that face-to-face communication is still more powerful than “virtual” meetings, even with the increasingly powerful collaboration tools now available (there’s also the harsh reality that lots of those people would work remotely if their employers would let them, but that’s another story altogether).

Ms. Hockerman quoted one “expert” on the subject:

“The main reason people go to the corporate office is to be with other people,” says James Ware, executive producer of The Work Design Collaborative LLC, based in Prescott, Ariz. “There is a tremendous power in face-to-face meetings. Same-time, same-place can spark a powerful source of collaborative innovation and meaning for people.”

She also cites an expert on meeting rooms and collaboration technologies:

“A conference room is no longer thought of as just a meeting space within a building, but as a virtual meeting space in a limitless universe,” says Marvin Hecker, director of audio-visual design at JanCom Technologies, Inc., in Austin, Texas. “The level of technology available today can create a telepresence, where the visual and sound during a teleconference is presented in such a natural way that it is as if all participants are sitting in the same room.”

The technology to create telepresence has yet to replace face-to-face contact, but, like most technological investments, it provides companies with greater expectations of productivity, efficiency and reduced costs. Less time and money spent traveling to in-person meetings can only be effective if the technology can preserve the power found in human interaction.

Actually, I do believe we’re getting closer to technology that “preserves the power found in human interaction.” Most of us these days are very comfortable with audio conference calls, which are incredibly commonplace, even though we know we can’t depend on them to replace 100% of our interactions.

And video conferencing, using systems like HP’s Halo and Cisco’s Telepresence, while still way too expensive for home offices, is finding its way into more and more corporate facilities, some of which are available for rent to the general public on an hourly basis. As more and more people experience these technologies I’m sure the demand for them — and our general level of comfort with distributed meetings — will only grow.

Add to those particular tools web conferencing and all the social networking applications, and it’s clear we’re all becoming more used to “virtual” collaboration. Yes, there’s certainly much value in being together, and there always will be. But the more the economy becomes global and digital, the more we’re going to be communicating and collaborating with people far, far away.

Anyway, I encourage you to read the whole article in Impact.

What’s your personal perspective on the value of  face-to-face collaboration?

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