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How Much Face-to-Face Time Does A Team Really Need?

One of the biggest complaints about remote teams is that you don't get to meet face-to-face. But is that a bad thing? Given the complaints about meetings that people attend, more of them would hardly seem to be the answer, either.

What is the right ratio of virtual meetings to face-to-face interaction?

In a recent post on The Virtual Teams Blog, Dr Al Jury talked about the "golden ratio" of virtual meetings to face time? That number, by the way, is 5 virtual meetings (conference calls, webmeetings, video conferences) to every live, in person, nose-to-nose encounter. He admits it's an unscientific number at best, pulled from anecdotal and personal experience. He also is very clear on some of the factors that go into a number like that:

  • What's the team's function? Does the team work on isolated tasks and occasionally share information when needed? Software teams are a good example of a group that can stand long periods of time away from each other. Coders can work long hours on their piece of the project as long as they can get information when they need it. If it's a creative team that has to have constant, just in time interaction to brainstorm and give each other input to the process, face-to-face interaction is important.
  • What are the team dynamics? Does the team have a long relationship with a history of getting the job done? You might be okay with less time together. If, on the other hand, you're in start-up mode or you're just kicking off the project and people have never worked together, how will you create an environment where people are willing to go the extra mile for each other, trust that everyone is working as hard as they are, and all pulling in the same direction? Since first impressions are lasting ones, it might be important to get together often at the beginning, set the right tone and then you can have less time you learn how to work most productively as a group.
  • Just how virtual is virtual? If the team is made up of telecommuters (people who live in the same area but work from home) the 5 to 1 ratio makes sense. They can get their butts into the office once in a while. If people are spread out around the planet, the laws of time, space, dimension and finance make it trickier. Still, the conventional wisdom says a team should get together at least once a year in order to maintain good relationships. Budget for it.
  • Do you make the most of the time you do spend together? If you do go to the expense and hassle of pulling your team together from hither and yon, is it worth the time and money? Good uses of time in this case include:
  1. Strategic discussions that require input from all members
  2. Activities that mix the team in unusual ways, especially cross functional and a mix of experienced and newer team members
  3. Social activities. There's a reason breaking bread together is a ritual as old as mankind. You learn a lot from someone over pizza.
  4. Enough unstructured time to allow hallway conversations to happen.
Jury sums it up nicely by saying "By having some regular (even if infrequent) face-to-face meetings, a virtual team is likely to be more effective as a result of increased trust and relationships within the team. This may be especially important in the start up phases of the team. Even so, a virtual team can still be effective for some types of tasks without ever meeting face-to-face. The main thing is to examine the virtuality of your virtual team and adopt a strategy which best suits it."

There may be no scientifically provable "golden ratio", but most managers and teams know when they've gone too long without seeing each other face to face.

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photo by flickr user joseburgosgarcia CC 2.0