We find ourselves living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with many changes at home and at work that could become permanent parts of our everyday lives. Some of these are curiosities, like high-end restaurants now offering takeout meals at steep discounts to maintain a revenue stream. Others are more than curiosities as we live through one of history's great social dilemmas.
One major change has been the near-elimination of face-to-face interaction in corporate and educational settings. Business meetings have historically been a face-to-face event, even if it requires flying across the country. And this experience could rapidly accelerate the attractiveness of online learning formats and create a sea change in the way that professors and institutions think about education.
Our new forced dependence on virtual meetings has led to infrastructure investments that will accelerate the effectiveness of the format, making it a continuing norm for post-pandemic business. Although this trend toward social interaction without social contact has many benefits, caution may be warranted for three reasons.
First, virtualizing social interaction runs the risk of decreasing engagement, which is critical for effectiveness and innovation. Consider how participants who are not engaged can be much more severe in online environments. A rich communication medium like face-to-face or video conveys a host of subtle cues, making it easy to tell face-to-face if someone is not engaged; that can be a much more difficult call over email or phone. Misinterpretation is less likely with visual cues helping to identify confusion so that corrective action can be taken. We've even found in our past research that cooperation is less likely -- and opportunism more likely -- when communication occurs using lean media.
Second, virtualizing social interaction can result in a subpar experience for participants. Our research indicates that rich interactions require three things: experience with the communication medium, experience with the other individual, and experience with the issue being discussed. Think about how much easier it is to have a nuanced discussion over email now than when you first started using email, or with a person you know well versus a stranger. Many have been thrown into virtual meetings with little experience, leading less experienced participants to unintentionally spectate, even if they have important points to raise or ideas to offer.
Finally, a key element of moving to a reliance on virtual meetings is the loss of tacit interaction. Steve Jobs suggested that the real progress of innovation occurs not in planned meetings but in the spontaneous interactions -- from coffee breaks and lunches to random hallway conversation -- around the office. In fact, one of the attractions of virtual meetings is their finiteness. When you turn off Zoom, the meeting is over, and you can move on. But that might also turn out to be one of the biggest liabilities of virtual meetings. Each of us has experienced the contrast between a formal classroom setting versus the tacit interaction and experience of exchanging ideas with a colleague. In the long-term, virtual interactions could hinder social network development -- the creation of friendships that provide the opportunity for bouncing ideas off each other in the future -- because it's the coffee breaks, lunches, and dinners that provide the real opportunities to develop relationships with others.
In the end, these concerns suggest the need for balance between virtual and face-to-face interaction to achieve a successful social interaction equilibrium. Face-to-face connections have a "decay function" -- the personal connection developed face-to-face can be leveraged virtually for a while. But, eventually, you need to refresh and reinforce that personal connection. Likewise, virtual interactions are more likely to be successful with colleagues you have had a chance to meet and get to know face-to-face before you have to interact with them virtually.
Although virtual communication has temporarily replaced face-to-face interactions out of an abundance of caution, we hope that in our post-pandemic business world organizations exercise caution and discernment in deciding just how much to change routines, activities, and ways of getting things done. Virtual communication has many benefits, but the value of face-to-face communication simply can't be replaced.
Gregory Northcraft is the Harry J. Gray Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois.
Margaret Neale is the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management Emerita at Stanford Graduate School of Business.