Picture a worker in a cubicle. Gray walls, gray chair, gray computer. Gray hum of background noise all around. When she picks up the phone, the way in which the voice is processed over that instrument cuts out most of the emotion. That’s why telephone calls and webinars are so boring. No emotion.

The rest of her day is filled with virtual engagement – reports, emails, Slack threads, all of it mostly devoid of real human interaction.

Now stretch that picture out, day after day, month after month, year after year. Is it any wonder that 68 percent of your workers are either actively disengaged or not engaged according to the last Gallup poll?

My hunch is that this problem has become much more entrenched in the years following the 2008-9 recession, when so many organizations were flattened, employees were laid off, and companies shrunk.  The result is a workforce stretched thin, with little time and less budget for intellectual development, days away from the office, and travel to interesting places in search of interesting ideas.

Meetings and conferences are, for all their faults, a way to provide stimulations, re-engagement, and emotional interest for those workers.

Another recent study found that regular face-to-face communication cuts the risk of depression in adults by half. Phone and email don’t have the same effect.

Our unconscious minds need to get together so that they can find the emotional connections they crave. We humans are social beings. We don’t do well when deprived of our fellow humans.

The idea that we can get by on a virtual diet comes from a deep misunderstanding about the way the human mind and the human emotional system work.  We think that our conscious mind rules the day, because that’s the mind we’re aware of, but in fact it’s the unconscious mind that drives us.  And it derives most of its food from interacting with other people, soaking up their emotions and endlessly analyzing their attitudes, moods, decisions, and so on.

That unconscious mind needs face-to-face interaction or it goes a bit crazy and starts to troll perfectly harmless people on line.  Or decides that the bosses don’t care about it and so sabotages the business for no apparent reason whatever.

In order to feed that unconscious beast and keep it happy, you need to periodically gather up all the unconscious minds that work for you and take them out of the building to a conference or a meeting.  You need to give them different surroundings to look at, music to listen to, and salsa to eat – and most of all, different people to interact with.

So when people say “the conference was great, but you never get enough networking” – which is every conference ever – that’s their unconscious minds saying, “A snack, that was a snack! When’s dinner?”

The way many, many businesses are set up today is not conducive for either good morale or good mental health.  Fix the problem by offering workers a day at a conference.  It will truly beat the alternatives.


  1. I agree! Funny, I can recall getting into this business at the onset of the great recession and being told that virtual meetings were going to completely disrupt conferences. Not even close. People are so hungry for authentic, human connection and increasingly, people recognize how critical learning is to remaining relevant in a world that is changing so fast. However, the traditional conference can come dangerously close to the representation that started your post — “picture a worker in a ballroom at the Hyatt, 37th row, under florescent lights, two hours from the next break, while another executive moves through a deck so full of data, charts, graphs, financial and operational analysis that the only thing keeping the employee aware is a mindless scroll through instagram and facebook”…..you are tracking with the music, salsa, connections, change of scenery etc. What people covet today is authentic connection and a better experience….that is the real opportunity! I think it’s going to be a very fun time for progressive meeting/event planners (and speakers) to challenge the status quo and reinvent the way we think about meetings and off site events! See you soon!

    1. Exactly, Ryan — and great point about how some conferences can let you down in the face-to-face department!

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