A 30-year field service veteran at Xerox explains why technology, for all its benefits, will never replace a good ol’ in-person meeting.

We live in an amazing time for high-tech communications. The smartphones we carry can call, text, access email, capture voicemail and connect us in virtual meetings, allowing users to simultaneously talk and share documents or graphics. Managers can meet with their teams without the time-consuming (and productivity robbing) necessity of taking their techs from the field to drive to an office meeting room. It’s no wonder software solutions like WebEx and GoToMeeting are must-haves for any field service company operating in 2017.

I’m a field service tech with 30-plus years on the job who despises sitting in a stuffy room that smells of stale pizza from the sales meeting the night before. I’d much rather join a meeting in the comfort of my mobile office. That’s why I’m hesitant to admit that face-to-face meetings should not fall by the wayside.

Lone Wolves Should Not Be Left Alone

By its nature, field service is a lone-wolf career. If you’re an employee who needs constant direction or supervision, field service is not for you. Techs are a special breed who work independently and excel in self-motivation. Managers might see this as a reason to continue the accelerated move to virtual meetings and give up traditional meetings altogether. But I disagree. The isolation of working alone is an important reason to continue face-to-face meetings.

Tuning Out Online Meetings

Office workers are in constant contact with management and reminded every day of the company’s vision and purpose — frequent in-office meetings help keep them in focus. Field service managers can hold virtual meetings twice a day and send email after email expressing the company’s vision and still not get through to their teams. The bad-news reality of virtual meetings is the ease with which they can be ignored.

The bad-news reality of virtual meetings is the ease with which they can be ignored.

In a face-to-face meeting you can tell if someone is playing solitaire on their laptop, but in a virtual meeting they can walk away from their laptop or smartphone whenever they want. I’ve heard some managers test for engagement by asking questions like “How do you feel about that?” or “Does this seem right to you?” — or even “So, Bob, what’s your opinion on this?” All Bob has to say is “Yeah, that sounds great,” even if he has no idea about the question, and the ruse goes on.

Don’t Count Out Distractions

Not every missed point is the result of negligent online meeting habits. In a meeting room, employees have very few outside distractions, but you never know what is around the employees to capture their attention during a phone meeting. I’ve known techs who have driven to their next service call during a meeting.

Communication Is More Than Speaking Into a Mic

Another downside of virtual meetings is the lack of facial expression and body language — a huge loss since humans convey meaning through far more than words alone. For a meeting where some are distracted while others play Angry Birds, a loss of body language cues can be significant.

Protect Your Team From the Clan Effect

Perhaps the most negative effect of the virtual-meeting craze is what it does to team cooperation and harmony. It’s human nature to think sometimes that you’re the only one on the team who does a thorough job, keeps their machines clean or gets to work on time. We’ve all had similar thoughts about our coworkers, but when you see those people on a regular basis you’re more likely to realize that they aren’t the slackers your bad mood made them out to be.

For many field service reps, traditional meetings are the only time they get to see and interact with everyone on the team. Without face-to-face meetings, doubts fester and minds stray. Cliques tend to form and gossipy back-biting becomes the norm. Fully developed, the “clan effect” will spill over into customer interactions, and the gossiping will affect customer satisfaction as well.

Without face-to-face meetings, doubts fester and minds stray. Cliques tend to form and gossipy back-biting becomes the norm.

Online meetings are a wonderful means of quick communication and staying in touch with field service staff. If you polled your service team, the majority would give virtual meetings a thumbs-up over a traditional, face-to-face meeting every time. But nothing can take the place of getting your team together to chew the fat or discuss an important issue. Technology is an invaluable tool — but it is not a panacea.