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February 26, 2023   |  Articles

Virtual or In Person: Which is Truly Better?

As the in-person gathering restrictions of the COVID pandemic continue to loosen, the question of “should this be a virtual or in person event?” is popping up more often.  Since I have lots of thoughts on the subject, I decided to create a decision tree to help people decide what venue would best suit their needs.  Time after time, however, I would create a branch of the tree and then immediately think of several counterexamples proving that the other option could also work.  In the end, I decided that almost every event can be successful with either approach.  Success will most often lie in the plan – not the venue. 

Of course, after all the practice we have had in the past few years leveraging parallel collaboration tools and virtual meetings, I believe that the 2023 default should be virtual sessions. But that doesn’t make virtual the best option for every situation.  So instead of a decision tree, this article presents a handful of “Definitely” recommendations for each setting and then dives a bit deeper into my thoughts on turning “can work” into “will work” for either option.

Definitely In Person

Hardware Hands On: This may go without saying but when there are physical materials involved that are crucial to the success of an event (hardware engineering, manufacturing, etc), getting people in the room to handle those materials will require an in-person event except under rare circumstances.

Large Scale Team Building: Less obviously, team building events for more than 15 people have proven incredibly difficult to do effectively on virtual platforms.  This is a case where virtual is possible but if personal connection across a large group of people is your number one priority, effective in person events will be much easier to plan.

No Excuses Decision Making: Although there are many great options for focusing a small group of decision makers through virtual events, our culture continues to tolerate a certain degree of intellectual disconnect in these settings.  If you cannot tolerate a decision maker backing away from their commitments, in person events offer fewer socially acceptable excuses after the fact.

Definitely Virtual

Too Big To Make Financial Sense: Starting off with an equally obvious example on the virtual front, if you are trying to host an event that would require an impossible travel budget to do in person, you know that Virtual is going to be your only viable option.  A well organized, large virtual event will still require a substantial budget but it should be significantly cheaper than travel costs for most distributed teams.

Brainstorming: With “breakout rooms” now broadly available and virtual whiteboards like Miro or Mural approved by most organizations, brainstorming sessions can be far more effective virtually than in person.  With increased scalability and parallel processing, virtual settings allow more ideas to take shape and creativity can flourish in a well-facilitated context.  The need for physical interaction with materials would trump the benefits of virtualization (unless materials can easily be sent to all participants) but I expect this to be the most controversial of my “Definitelys” regardless and look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

Shifting Between Venues

As I said up front, my experience over the past few years has been that just about any event can be effectively executed virtually or in person but you must plan from the ground up for whichever option you choose.  The structure, tools, and nuances of each must be built into the plan to take full advantage of opportunities and minimize the impact of limitations for your chosen format.  Last minute switches from one to the other are truly a recipe for disaster.

For example, virtual Breakout Rooms can be timed very precisely as attendees are “returned” to the main session regardless of whether they want to come back.  In person, you need to plan for time to herd everyone back into the main space if people actually change their physical locations.  Failing to account for this difference can leave a facilitator short on time if they try to port a virtual agenda directly into an in-person venue.

Similarly, virtual collaboration allows for everyone to access a whiteboard simultaneously and collecting written input from a large number of people.  While sticky notes can go a long way towards a similar capture of parallel input, making a smooth transition from soliciting information virtually to in person requires more planning than simply using a physical whiteboard rather than a digital one.

Going the other way, ice breakers built around eye contact can be hilarious but ineffective when the camera and the video boxes of other attendees are in totally different places. 

So Will You Choose Virtual or In Person?

At the most basic level, putting people in a physical room together is best for rapidly building instinctive trust.  When we share a space with others, particularly when we can sit on the same side of the table or otherwise lean into physical cues of “us”ness, bonds are formed that can make it easier to assume best intentions and otherwise work smoothly together.  Trust can absolutely be built in virtual forums, and can even be built quickly, but probably never quite as quickly as can be managed in person. 

Virtual spaces, on the other hand, are ideally suited for bringing diverse ideas together quickly.  Effective virtual events generally require far more structure and planning to be successful at all but they also tend to be more effective because then the planning gets done.  In person events are, bluntly, more forgiving of a loose agenda and the quality of the experience too often suffers as a result.

So unless you meet one of the Definitely In Person criteria listed above (or unless you are willing to admit that you just don’t want to invest the effort required to plan an effective virtual experience), virtual is often the way to go.  But often is a far cry from always and, whichever you choose, leaning into the strengths of your venue is truly going to be your path to success.

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