The Creative Power of Meeting Eyeball to Eyeball

09_23_FaceToFace_01
President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on September 23. In a time where connecting remotely is easier than ever, new research from MIT suggests the continued benefits of face-to-face, in-person contact. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Manhattanites, brace for September 25.

The UN General Assembly will still be in session, gathering 193 countries’ dignitaries and their motorcades. Participants in the Clinton Global Initiative—more dignitaries and motorcades—will be arriving. And Pope Francis will be spending the day in the city, drawing thousands to events downtown at the World Trade Center, uptown at an East Harlem school and in midtown at Madison Square Garden for a rush-hour mass.

Borough-wide gridlock looms.

But why? In the digital age, why must high-maintenance leaders travel from around the world to meet when technology could let them convene in HD video from the comfort of home or office, connecting by text or email with far more peers than they could ever talk with face-to-face?

Why should thousands of people cram an arena for a distant glimpse of the pope when they could get a better view and clearer sound by watching on their televisions or phones?               

Getting together in person is less necessary every day. Yet it’s booming. Indeed, we seem desperate for it. High-priced conferences, like TED events at $8,500 a ticket, are multiplying. Entrepreneurs in New York and elsewhere are organizing 60-person dinners for which attendees pay $200 simply to meet, in person, people they don't know.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that over the coming decade, jobs for meeting and event planners will increase three times faster than jobs generally.

It’s happening because our digital lives are starving us of in-person interaction, which holds a magic—and a productive power – that will not be denied. When people talk to one another in person, up close and face-to-face, their brains synchronize, especially in the left inferior frontal cortex, an area associated with empathy and social cognition; brain imaging research by Jing Jiang and colleagues at Beijing Normal University shows that the same regions light up at the same time.

When we describe that wonderful feeling of being “in synch” with someone else, it’s actually not a metaphor. But if we connect in some fashion other than in person and face-to-face, the synchronization disappears. We no longer “read” one another and don’t take turns in the conversation as frequently and easily as we do face-to-face.

That’s a problem because other research shows that exactly those factors—reading one another and conversational turn-taking – are the most important in determining how well a group performs a wide range of tasks. Researchers found that those factors are far more important than the ones most of us think are critical, like group cohesion, satisfaction and motivation.

MIT researcher Alex Pentland and his colleagues at the Human Dynamics Laboratory Laboratory found that the best predictor of team productivity was how much the members interacted in a given period, and “engagement”—the degree to which all team members were involved in the interaction.

In-person social interaction helps the group elicit more ideas from all members and arrive at better judgments about those ideas. Together, face-to-face, we become literally smarter and more capable as a group than we ever could be when meeting virtually.

The deep, often unconscious elements of in-person interaction are more important than language. Pentland and his team have studied hundreds of groups in face-to-face meetings where participants wear sociometric badges, unobtrusive devices that record unspoken social signals—who’s talking, how much, in what tone, interrupting or not, facing toward whom and away from whom, gesturing how—but don’t record what people say.

That turns out not to matter. Pentland’s remarkable finding is that  “usually we can completely ignore the content of discussions and use only the visible social signals to predict the outcome of a negotiation or a sales pitch, the quality of group decision making, and the roles people assume within the group.” What matters are the many ways we connect only when we’re physically together.

The subtleties of in-person interaction are critical also to creativity. A team of researchers from two U.S. universities and three European universities studied interactions within several teams at the University of Cologne that were trying to find new methods of prediction and analysis in psychology, economics, computer science and other fields; independent raters judged the creativity and quality of the teams’ ideas.

Understanding group creativity is increasingly important as more organizational problem solving gets done by teams rather than individuals; when Oxford Economics asked major employers to name the skills they want most in employees, “co-creativity and brainstorming” ranked near the top.

The researchers in Cologne found that physical presence is vital to a creative group. The more that group members faced each other, the more creative was their output. The more they looked into each other’s eyes, and the more willing they were to confide in one another, the more creative they were.

The researchers also measured trust within the groups and found that it was crucial to the whole process; more in-person interaction led to more trust. The researchers’ conclusion: “The more team members directly interact with each other face-to-face, and the more they trust other team members, the more creative and of higher quality the result of their teamwork is.”

Ironically, some of the most successful digital entrepreneurs have understood all this especially well. Apple founder Steve Jobs designed workplaces to force people into in-person encounters.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy,” he told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

The main reason Google serves its employees gourmet food for free is to make sure they’ll go to the cafeterias, where they’ll meet randomly in person. Google even measures the time spent waiting in line; three to four minutes is optimal.

No, we won’t be giving up our digital lives. We benefit from them enormously. But neither will we forsake what makes us most fulfilled and effective as humans. Far from fading in the digital age, in-person experiences are only growing more valuable.

Manhattanites, get used to walking.

Geoff Colvin is author of Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will and Fortune’s Senior Editor-at-Large.