illuminating pathways to change

Up Close and Personal: On-Line is Face-to-Face

Screen shot of me on a video call – without Photoshop 😉

Like many of you I spend a helluva lot of work time on video calls related to work. On-line meetings, interviews, webinars and forms of virtual conferencing. We refer to them as “virtual” meetings presumably because we’re not in tangible contact. However many interactions on video platforms don’t feel at all “virtual” as the relationship is very real. Over the years I’ve developed many collegial friendships with people from around the world who I’ve never personally met – some due to a LinkedIn request to connect :-). If I do eventually encounter these people face-to-face – sometimes after many years of on-line meetings – it doesn’t feel like we are meeting for the first time. It feels like I’m meeting an old friend or close colleague – and in fact I am doing just that.

Nowadays, when I want to ask a colleague something I’m just as likely to make a video call as pick up my phone (and even then I’m just as likely to use a video call app).

When we talk on a video call our faces can be as large as my face is in this image above. How often do we get so close to people in normal conversation? Think about it. When we sit across a table from someone – even at a coffee meeting we are very rarely that physically close. Because we are focused directly on a screen there is less distraction from our peripheral vision and less averted gaze. We are literally eyeballing each other – up close and personal.

With video calls we tend to lean right into our screens/cameras. Maybe it’s to hear or be heard or read the chat box but we do come right up close to the camera and hence appear large on the other person’s screen. My face seen this close on a laptop screen is actually bigger than my real face. It’s magnified in all its agéd glory, complete with wrinkles, scars and imperfect teeth. That level of facial detail is usually only reserved for the most intimate people in our lives. I’ve started to wonder what this means for professional relationships. It is increasingly easier to work “wherever” and working across different times zones is increasingly the norm. Many of us now conduct on-line business meetings and interviews from our private homes / personal space. This gives us a more personal connection as we see kitchens and paintings on the living room walls behind.

We sometimes hear that “face-to-face is always best”. This is meant to refer to a physical presence always being best. In many ways this is true but I’m wondering if that maxim is rapidly breaking down. Is it always “best”? Apart from the technical elements and financial / time savings I’m interested in just what this increasing move to virtual really means to our personal business interactions.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Hybrid World Cafe designed to explore and learn how to run a Hybrid World Cafe. On a cold August Melbourne morning I joined about 25 people “in the room” attending this particular workshop at the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) Asia Conference in Seoul, Korea. About 12 more of us joined the workshop virtually. 

The World Café was led by Kazuaki Katori from Japan who was “in the room” and Amy Lenzo who dialled in from San Francisco. It almost felt like I was in the room there in Seoul as I could see people I know on my screen who could see me on the big screen and we waved to each other. Technology support was brilliant and maximised a sense of inclusion.

Amy assigned those of us joining virtually to break out “rooms” for the World Café rounds (the joys of Zoom that allow this to be organised so effortlessly). In one round the 4 at our “virtual café table” were based in New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia and Australia. We became fascinated with the level and quality of relationship achieved so quickly in our virtual table group and wondered what contributed to this.

The 3-hour workshop went quickly and I was totally engaged throughout. Apart from being well organised, technology has come a long way since I first became interested in on-line facilitation. I learned a great deal about the nuances of running a “hybrid” World Café (i.e. some attendees in bodily attendance and others having a virtual presence). But the BIG thing was this emerging sense of how virtual can be very close and very real.

In some ways we can manage / manipulate our on-line image better than in face-to-face interactions. I’m not the only person who puts on lipstick and a nice scarf for a video session while wearing PJs and having the dog at my feet. I was once on a video meeting when a man joined the call with his video on. In his part of the world it was about 5 am. He was unshaven, bare-chested, his hair dishevelled and looked like he had just woken up. Then he saw he had his camera on. I’ll never forget the expression on his face when he saw himself. But somehow it made him more real, more genuine.

Now here’s a little story… As I began been writing this blog a person from one of the small Hybrid World Café break-out groups asked to connect with me on LinkedIn. She is from Japan and it transpires that we have met briefly face to face. Here is what she wrote:

I actually met you at the conference in Taiwan last year but did not have a chance to talk, so I appreciated the opportunity I had at the online Hybrid Cafe. It was amazing to find how well this style works for people whose cultural style is conservative. As you are forced to talk (in a good way), it is possible to have a deeper sense of inclusion.

We are moving to more and more virtual meetings and interactions. I’m very interested to hear your perspectives and experiences in relation to being “up close and personal” on-line. Comments welcome.

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