Not So fast, Digital: Why We Still Need Face-to-Face Interactions in Business

The eternal question, so widely discussed it’s almost become a cliché: what will become of the real-world/virtual divide? It often seems like humanity has placed itself onto the playground slide leading to complete digitization — despite our hesitation, our panicked flailing, we have to brace ourselves and let the descent run its course. However, there are some barriers to complete digitization that seem unsurpassable.

We are miserable, depressed creatures in solitary isolation. Our brains are simply not wired to be alone all day. Many of us have learned the hard way this past year that working in proximity with others provides benefits that virtual networks can’t replicate. Given this fact, coming years may well see a renewed proclivity for office work, as people learn that the more entrenched within digital, we get, the less exciting our work lives become.

Human relationships are complicated. Whether it’s a colleague, a boss, a client or new business partner, the connections we form are rarely simple. We are constantly trying to assess others’ motivations, opinions and hidden agendas. These things are hard enough to do in real-life, face-to-face interactions, but over a lagging video call, they are nigh on impossible. To truly gauge another individual’s character, we need to engage with that person in real life.

Our assessment of them will not be limited to the words they choose, and the ideas they express, but will also include a silent, nonverbal evaluation of the person’s handling of interaction. How they move their facial muscles, how they smile, their sense of humor, their emotional reactions to conversation — all of these small triggers will produce a complex impression that we would struggle to fully explain in language, but that form an essential component of our relationships with others.

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Then, you could say: surely, as soon as the technology is good enough for high-definition video calls that allow for such facial readings, offices will become redundant? Maybe, but even this is no substitute for the real thing. Having a multi-perspective, high-definition audiovisual representation of your colleague on a screen in front of you is still a video call. There is still a distance between you. You’re only getting a surface-level interaction with that person. You don’t really get a sense of their emotional state or their vibe.

There is another aspect of office life that is as of yet irreplaceable: cooperation and team-building. Being around people, working with them, going together for a coffee in the break-room, these things give us the feeling of being part of a team. There is a great sense of security in knowing that your part of a collective. According to Bournemouth-based Quadrant2Design, ‘Even the greatest minds function best with a network around them. This isn’t just for pragmatic reasons — it is far easier to maintain a sense of mental wellbeing when nestled into a wider social framework.’ Being part of a team means that when you succeed, you succeed for everyone else also.

Your achievements benefit the whole team. You can see in real-time the impact that your work has, the people with whom you are bound up. You’re motivated because you want to succeed for your team and also, crucially, do not want to fail and let them down. Equally, beyond the work itself, having these interpersonal relations with fellow colleagues brightens up one’s work life dramatically. Simple things like brief exchanges over lunch or a morning coffee can keep individuals far more engaged in their work than if they were spending the day alone.

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There are also pragmatic reasons for privileging live interactions. Businesses exiting the pandemic in 2021 need to forge stable, reliable relations with business partners, contractors, employees and clients. They cannot afford any degree of doubt or uncertainty that might jeopardize the relationship in the long-run; businesses have to be making sustainable decisions for long-term economic viability. Digital interactions simply leave too much in the air to be dependable. While they are certainly useful as a supplementary means of communication, when it comes to making decisions about who to do business with, the traditional, face-to-face means of evaluating potential candidates are still the best.

It might seem an unfit pairing, but consider the world of dating services. Apps like Hinge, Bumble and Tinder are continually upping their game, becoming more and more popular as a means of meeting partners, but are they replacing real-world channels? No. Virtual apps do not have the excitement of live interactions.

They make up for this deficiency with convenience and with higher volume — Tinder allows you to swipe your way through a sea of potential candidates in one sitting, making live seem incredibly restricted by comparison. However, all in all, the experience of meeting someone you like in real life and engaging with them can never be rivalled by a digital match. It doesn’t matter how many photos that person has, how many TikTok videos they’ve made that you can watch — your interaction with them is limited to typed text. So far, dating apps are like a library of partners: you can browse ad infinitum, but for the actual interaction itself, an app will not suffice.

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A lot of entrepreneurial work can be done solo, but for the vast majority of people, our work lives involve liaising with a network of individuals. We report to one or more executives, work collaboratively with a team, and sometimes delegate to more junior employees. Most people’s jobs are part of a larger machine, operations that are integrated into a much bigger, more complex whole.

We’re inevitably bound up into a net of relations with others, relations that we need to keep us motivated and engaged. If Covid-19 was a test to see if humans could manage by themselves, we’ve failed. At the end of the pandemic, we’ll come running back into each other’s arms like a scene from Baywatch. We’re social creatures, and try as we may, we cannot yet surpass our programming.