There are essentially three kinds of meetings – those that are entirely “in person”, those that are entirely “on call” and hybrids. I argue that the quality of conversation in the third kind of meeting is significantly inferior to that of the first two types.
In person meetings are those where all participants are in one room. These are perhaps the best kind of meetings (except when you know it’s likely to turn antagonistic), for you can maintain eye contact with the others and as long as the number of meeters is small, there is social pressure on meeters to not be distracted, and thus the meeting is likely to conclude its agenda productively and quickly.
Conference calls allow you to multitask while you are on the meeting – the positive thing is that you can choose to switch off when you want to, but the downside of that is that you don’t know when one of the others is switching off, and this might take longer to conclude your agenda. However, the good thing about such meetings is that everyone is speaking into the phone, is well aware that it’s only voice that is getting transmitted and thus moderate their speaking accordingly.
The problem is with the hybrids – where some people are in one room and others are dialling in. Some of these meetings are not a problem – let’s say there are two parties that are party to the meeting, and all members of one party are in one location and all members of the other party in the other location, it is rather simple – you are much more likely to speak addressing the other party, and thus your voice and gestures are as if you’re on a conference call, and you speak more for the benefit of the counterparties at the other end of the line rather than your colleagues sitting with you in your room.
There are some meetings, however, where either you have way too many parties, or a particular party gets split between people physically present and people who are listening in. These meetings are the most disastrous and least likely to add value. I’ve been on both sides of such meetings – being in camera and dialling in, and have got immensely stressed out on both such occasions.
The problem with such meetings is that you’re not clear who you are addressing. Let’s say you are in camera. If you speak addressing the people sitting with you, you are likely to use a lot of body-part gestures to enhance your message, and speak in a voice that is appropriate for the room. Neither of this translates well over the phone – for people who have dialled in, neither will the voice be clear nor will they get the full import of the talking since they can’t see the hand gestures! And so they feel left out and are compelled to switch off.
On the other hand, if you are in camera and decide to speak addressing primarily the people who have dialled in, others in your room will get disturbed and switch off. You will tend to speak too loudly, for you desire to speak into the speakerphone, and given you are primarily address people who can’t see you, you don’t bother with niceties such as using your body parts for gesturing or maintaining eye contact with anyone. Thus, people in your room will get alienated and switch off!
It is the same case when you are dialling in. Firstly you don’t know when to intervene, for you miss possible visual cues that the others are using to communicate subliminally. When you do intervene you don’t know if you can be heard, and the other participants who would have by now been used to giving physical feedback – like eye contact or a nod or a smile or a wink, fail to give you the verbal feedback that you now desire! And while listening you get alienated as I’ve explained earlier.
A meeting where some people are in camera and some dialling in does no good for anybody. It is hence preferable to avoid such meetings. However, there are some occasions when for some desired participants it is not possible to be physically present. A good solution for such occasions would be to march the other attendees back to their offices and do the whole thing over call. It is definitely less stressful than a half-and-half hybrid meeting!