The wired water cooler is no substitute for face time

There is No Substitute for Face Time

You’ve noticed, of course, that many employees are working from home these days. These virtual employees avoid long commutes and the company saves money on office space. This trend accelerated over the past few years. It seems everybody wants to work from home.

As I wrote several years ago, companies are creating online communities where employees can pull in the information they need when they want it and engage in conversations with other employees.

But these communities are no longer working so well. The “wired” water cooler where employees gather for conference calls or video get-togethers isn’t the same as rubbing shoulders with someone at the actual office water cooler and popping into a colleague’s office to shoot the breeze.

The Return of Face Time

This was brought to my attention today by a friend who works virtually from home, only visiting the office a couple of times a month. He’s in a service business where you are judged not only by your competency but your billable hours.

He needs more billable time but he’s fallen off the radar screen. People don’t see him at the water cooler or in the cafeteria, so out of sight out of mind. His manager suggested that he start coming into the office two days a week to engage with managers of other profit centers to generate more billable time.

But it isn’t only employees who are losing touch. Senior executives who are always on the road don’t have time to interact with their subordinates.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, traveling frequently for work can leave employees without adequate feedback or a boss wondering whether you manage well, suggests Bruce Tulgan, author and chief executive of Rainmaker Thinking Inc., a management research and training firm. He says, “You have to be there to problem-solve.”

Ramesh Tainwala, CEO of luggage maker Samsonite, was quoted in the same article, “A conference call cannot substitute for face-to-face interactions. When we meet in person, we almost hear each other’s thoughts.”

Social Media Face Time

It’s no secret why Apple calls its video calling service “FaceTime.” Google+ Hangouts and Skype are also seeing increasing usage. Skype has the advantage, of course, of being available for anyone to use, whereas FaceTime requires using Apple products and you need to have a Google+ account to use Hangouts.

I had such a good time last night on an hour-long call with my nephew and his partner in Los Angeles. I’m in New York so a physical meeting wasn’t possible. FaceTime was a great substitute for being in the same room together.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t give him a hug good night. I couldn’t reach out to pat him on the shoulder. We couldn’t almost “hear each other’s” thoughts.

Finally, it’s just plain lonely to work virtually. I’m an entrepreneur who works alone so I know the feeling. When I was still in the corporate world, I loved the interaction with other people in the office. We’d often go to lunch together – you know, get out of the office, talk about personal things and really get to know each other as people.

Human interaction develops trust. You’re willing to put your life in the hands of someone you can look in the eye, who’s shown his vulnerable side, who has your back.

So while company intranets are essential in a global business world, we’ve lost something. And many people are feeling it. Not only in lost personal contact, but losing the connections in the office that can advance your career.

Leave a Reply


  1. Jeannette, It’s true that there is nothing like in person time with other people, whether they are clients, prospects or colleagues. While it is convenient to work at home, that element of engaging gets lost. Good post.

  2. I’ve read, too, where more and more companies are finding that there is no substitute for face time. And some of it has to do with productivity. Not everyone has the discipline to work from home, and it may have been a mistake to think so. I have always worked from home, managed to be productive and I like it! But I do think my experience is rare. I have been able to develop trust relationships with people that I have never met! But I do think that social interaction in team situations is essential. I have yet to have a collaborative project succeed without all the parties meeting and getting to know each other face to face. Personally, I’d like to see more of it!

    • Jacquie — I rely on my very good friends to fill that loneliness gap. But I worked in offices in the era when everyone showed up at work. You can go to an office these days and will find hardly anybody at their desks and, if they are, they’re glued to their computers.

  3. Jeannette, this is very valid. There are distinct advantages to working at home but the person to person contact, so valuable, is lost. This is true, not just only in the corporate world but also in personal interaction. Just think about all the dating sites that are cropping up, people have no other way to connect anymore and I think this ‘separateness’ is going to cause a lot of social problems. What you said about your nephew – yes, you can talk to him but you can’t touch him. It is well known that people need that human touch – a hug, a pat on the back. Maybe sometime down the road there will be a compromise – a few days working at home and a few days at the office.

    • Lenie — that’s what’s happening for my friend. He will be in the office two days a week now to make those all-important human connections.

  4. You’ve raised good points in this article. I’ve worked on projects where team members were scattered geographically and/or where most members worked from home. Contact was through telephone, chat and emails. The advantages are being able to assemble a team that doesn’t necessarily reside in the same city. It offers flexibility for team members in terms of avoiding commute. Technology makes this easier to do than in the past, but there are definite drawbacks. It is hard to develop the same rapport as in person. And the informal conversations or overheard bits from a neighbouring desk that often lead to problem solutions don’t happen. I don’t think the individuals develop the same sense of connection to the team they’re working with. I’ve found the distance relationships worked best with people I’d met in person at least a few times, but still it isn’t quite the same as face to face.

    • Donna — I agree you can develop good friends online (such as our Bloggers Helping Bloggers Group) but I sure wish I could meet them offline!

  5. Jeannette this is a terrific post.

    I find that for business, social media is just a launching pad to a relationship. I so wish I will meet you in person someday, as I did Jacqueline Gum! Indeed, there is nothing like being able to see eyeball to eyeball in person. I love Facetime as a close substitute for everyone except my mom. Her advanced dementia causes her to be confused about what and who she is seeing. My neighbor and friend told me just to forget about using it with her.

    For most any other situation, you can bet when moving a conversation further along, video kind of services are the next best substitute for when in-person isn’t possible.

    • Patricia — I’d love to meet you, too, after all this time. I feel very close to my blogging buddies but it would be icing on the cake if I could meet them in person.

  6. It wasn’t so long ago that even Yahoo began reducing the amount of virtual workers for these same reasons you state Jeannette. Working in person does have many benefits even though working from home has others. I think you do have to be a certain type of disciplined individual to make working from home “work” 🙂 As for skype I love that app. It has kept me in close contact with my family and brought us even closer I think. But you are right, I still cannot reach out and give my nieces and nephews a hug.

    • Tim — Actually Marissa Mayer said no one could work from home when she joined Yahoo. I think that was a little Draconian for working mothers working part time from home. You’re right. It takes discipline to “work” from home. I think what most of us who are solo entrepreneurs miss most is the sense of community of working in an office all the time.

  7. Excellent points, but I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the face time issue. First I need to clarify that I’m speaking from an entrepreneur point of view rather than an employee, but the face time issue remains a challenge. Here’s the deal though – face time is realistic when it’s local which relates to the examples you shared, but it crosses the line when you’re talking long-distance, particularly when we consider the cost and hassle of travel these days.

    This is a subject I’m intimately familiar with since I was a road warrior for the Hawaii travel industry for over 20 years. My area of responsibility was international so my ‘face time’ cost a small fortune. Corporations can justify that, small business rarely can. While doing business online precludes the connection that goes with face time, it opens up business opportunities around the world. For example I live in Maui and I have readers all over the world and clients on 3 Islands and in 4 countries. The truth is even if I could jump on a plane to visit each of them, I wouldn’t do it because of the time and hassle involved in business travel.

    Anyway, for local businesses I definitely agree with the value and benefits of face time, at the same time I believe we’ve gained far more in terms of expanding business and relationships than we’ve lost. Great subject!

    • Marquita — I agree, technology has opened up many more opportunities for connecting with people and businesses beyond our geographically area. I certainly consider the people I’ve met in LinkedIn Groups as friends, albeit long distance ones. However, whenever possible, I believe that you gain so much benefit from sitting across the table from someone to work out a thorny problem. You can gauge their feelings and attitudes by their body language and other emotional cues that aren’t possible long distance.

  8. Agree with you completely that there is no substitute for face time. Personally am much more interested in cooperating with a person that I have met in person. You get a much better feeling of what the person is all about when you meet.

    Having said that Google Hangout and Skype video calls are better than nothing. When we had our Google Hangouts I really felt it was great to finally talk to all of you instead of just communicating on social media.

    The problems of not interacting with colleagues in the office that you point out are absolutely correct. Someone who is never there is easily forgotten.

    • Catarina – you do get to know people better in person. Innovations like Google Hangouts, Skype and Facetime are viable substitutes when you can’t be physically present. But when you have the option of working virtually 24/7 and working from the office, I believe office face time trumps connecting by email and video.

  9. I can feel the difference so well as I used to work as a translator for years. What had bothered me more than anything else was the lack of human contact. So, I welcomed any opportunity to do oral translation.

    On the other hand, when I entered the world of tour guiding, I needed some time to be on my own as I spent lots of time with others who are so willing to ask and learn about my country.

    I think I’m well-settled now as I can relax in low season and work on my website while interact with my clients in high season! However, even in my situation, Skype and similar video conferencing tools are like break-through technologies that make my days when I’m merely focused on my web work!

    • Rahman — you’re quite right, there needs to be a balance. I personally need “alone time” after I spend a day interacting with a lot of people. But I would miss the face time if I didn’t have it.

  10. I agree with you completely, Jeannette. There is absolutely no substitute. Facetime and Skype, etc. is just not cutting it. Back when I worked in the corporate world the people who traveled too much or worked from home were not the ones to get promoted, get those big projects or raises. It was the people who were there in the office day in and day out that were in the boss’s face, able to go to lunch with them, etc. that benefited. The only time it was good to be out of sight was during layoffs. Then I hoped they forgot I was working there. Lol

    • Susan — I remember the time my office was moving to smaller space the week I was supposed to go on vacation. When I asked if I would be guaranteed my office (not cubicle) they said they couldn’t promise. I cancelled my vacation and staked out my office. So that’s another reason to work in the office and not from home!