Friday, January 25, 2013

Advantages and Disadvantages of Physical, Virtual, or Mixed Meetings

I've been thinking about physical, virtual, and mixed physical/virtual meetings, based upon my experience in three areas:

  • As an employee of a multi-national company.
  • As a member of a professional organization serving (in my case) all of California.
  • As a volunteer with a service organization serving (in my case) all of southern California.

Each of these three organizations needs to gather people together for meetings of various types.

  • The service organization has three gatherings per year with the population that is being serviced. These are physical meetings in which people come from all over southern California and gather in a single location.
  • The service organization also has to train its volunteers - not only in southern California, but all across the country. These training events are webinars.
  • The professional organization has an annual training event. This is a physical meeting, generally held at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim. (People who have to travel a long distance to attend the meeting stay at the hotel.)
  • The professional organization has at least three other events per year. These are hybrid physical/virtual meetings; while the meeting itself is a webinar, some people choose to gather in a few locations throughout California to attend the meeting together.
  • As you may expect, the company has a lot of meetings spanning all types (physical, virtual, mixed). There are a number of mixed meetings, in which people gather at a few central locations to participate. Sometimes it's beneficial for people to travel to one of the meeting locations, rather than participating virtually.

So how do you decide whether a particular meeting should be physical, virtual, or mixed? Let me provide a couple of examples.


The volunteer organization that I referenced is Youth for Understanding (YFU), which (among other things) arranges for non-U.S. teenagers to spend a semester or a year with a host family in the United States. The experience of an exchange student in a foreign country follows certain patterns, and YFU arranges for the three meetings per year to address the concerns of the students when they first arrive in the United States, when they've spent several months in the United States, and when they are about to return home.

Now obviously it's quite possible for such a meeting to be virtual. Teenagers tend to be more used to online chat, Skype, Hangouts, and so forth. And since the kids are in homes from San Diego to Bakersfield, a virtual meeting would be easier to organize than one in which people have to drive 100 or more miles to get together.

But would a virtual meeting be any fun?

Let's face it - a group of teenagers is not necessarily looking forward to hearing about U.S. State Department regulations and parental regulations for an entire day. Part of the reason that these teenagers get together is to hang out with each other. They have two things in common: first, they are all foreigners in a strange country, and second, they are eager to meet new people. (This is why they go on an exchange in the first place.)

So in this particular case, it makes sense to get everyone together.


Over the years, I've worked in several organizational structures, including companies with single office locations, companies with multiple office locations (including one case in which a subsidiary's office was down the street from the corporate office), a multi-national based in the United States, and a multi-national based in France.

The U.S.-based multinational was Motorola (before it split into two companies), based in Schaumburg, Illinois. At one time, the head of our division within Motorola arranged for a one-day demonstration of all of the division's products. The demonstration was to be held in an auditorium in Schaumburg, but was to be accessible via videoconference to locations across the country. I was one of the presenters. Now I guess that I could have given my portion of the presentation from Anaheim, but I didn't - I flew to Schaumburg.


There were several reasons, but probably the most important reason was this - Schaumburg was where the action was. I can't recall the specifics, but I believe that the majority of the presenters were from Schaumburg. The head of the division was based in Schaumburg. Schaumburg had a nice auditorium from which the presentation could be given; our facility in California didn't have an auditorium. And even if it did, all sorts of arrangements would need to be made to support broadcasting from multiple locations; it would be easier to broadcast from one location and send the video everywhere else.

At the end of the day, it made perfect sense to spend the money to fly me across the country, put me in a hotel room for the night, and have me give my presentation in Schaumburg.

So I gave the presentation and went home. I'm not going to share my speculation on the results of my presentation in this blog post, but if you ever meet me in person, take a moment to ask me what happened after I gave my presentation in Schaumburg.
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