Unusually for me, I’ve just spent the last two weeks pretty much solidly in the company of people who I’m working closely with; first at the Global Voices Exchange workshop last week, then at the engine room organisation retreat, which brought together our distributed team in one place. Both weeks further reinforced for me the importance of in-person meetings for those of us who interact primarily in the digital space, for a number of reasons, and together have changed the way that I’ll collaborate online in the future.

I love the fact that working remotely and being part of different online communities means that I interact with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, cultural contexts and geographic locations on a daily basis. But this diversity in contexts also means people have different ways of understanding online activities, some of which can be really difficult to unpack without sitting down next to each other.

Generally speaking, online communication leaves much more to interpretation than an in-person interaction, which can be tricky when working across offline cultures. Examples of this came out especially for us at the engine room retreat when we talked about internal communications. Despite our shared understanding of what we do and why we’re there, it turns out there were literal opposites in the way we all understood our various forms of communication with each other.

For example: a one word email can seem curt and unfriendly to some people, but efficient and useful to others. An instant message ping could be interpreted as an urgent request for help, or as a lead in to some small talk. A long email could be useful background on a project to some, or an unwanted burden on an already-busy inbox, for others.

In-person time from the past two weeks also brought up another realisation for me; the way in which our personal lives have such a huge impact on what we do professionally, but rarely get communicated or brought to the foreground in what we do via digital communications.

Take last week’s Global Voices workshop, for instance. I’ve known some of the women there for a couple of years at least. I follow their work online, I watch them speak at conferences, and I’m in awe of the work they do. I’m constantly impressed and proud to know them for a multitude of reasons.

But during that intense and fairly intimate workshop week, I learned about other parts of their lives - parts that make what they do professionally even more impressive. The stuff behind the scenes doesn’t get talked about at conferences or reported on but is simply part of the everyday fabric of people’s lives. More importantly for my purposes as an online collaborator, it also rarely gets communicated as part of regular work-focused digital communications with each other unless there’s an existing personal relationship there.

That’s another reason why the in-person meetings are so important. Distributed teams and digital communities of practice rarely have the opportunity to really “get to know each other” online - instead, our digital communication is largely focused on our reason for being part of that community, and “working”. Those online relationships might well be focused even more on task delivery than in-person work relationships, because it’s often perceived that we prove our worth via the tasks or work that we get done online - so, getting down to the to-do list is prioritised time-wise, over the “relationship-building” parts of our work.

Having worked remotely for a couple of years now, I can’t emphasise how much the face-to-face time will have a positive benefit on my work. From the very concrete things like understanding different people’s communication preferences, to broader principles like trying my very hardest to remember that despite what is happening online we have no idea what might be going in a person’s personal life, and being more patient and understanding as a result, I always come away from small, in-person meetings with a better understanding of what I do, who I work with, and how best to collaborate effectively with them online.

Caveat: a large amount of the value from in-person meetings is down to having a good, well-structured and appropriate agenda, coupled with a great facilitator. I’m lucky to have had both each time, and I’m very grateful for the work and the preparation time that went into making sure those weeks were so valuable!