STC-SM October Program Recap

Face-to-Face Versus Remote Communication

Format: Panel
Location: Lawrence Technological University (LTU)

  • Maryann Bowen—Senior Manager of Education and User Experience, Saphran, Inc.
  • Steven D. Krause—Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Eastern Michigan University
  • Rich Leazer—Documentation and Publishing Manager, Health Information Technology & Services, Michigan Medicine (formerly University of Michigan Health System)
  • Catherine Vera-Burgos—Manager of BCN Provider Communications, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; graduate student at Wayne State University. For the purposes of this panel discussion, Catherine Vera-Burgos was asked to participate from the perspective of a graduate student rather than a manager.

Panel Moderator: Corinne Stavish—Director of the Technical and Professional Communication Program, LTU.


  •  New and experienced business/technical writing practitioners
  • Writing instructors
  • Communication students

Panel Format

Prof. Stavish opened the evening by introducing the panelists. Ever the storyteller, she then introduced the evening’s communication-based topic by relaying the story of a remote village enjoying the convenience of electricity for the first time. The story culminated in a villager explaining why, with so many television channels now at his fingertips, he would regularly forego the TV for the opportunity to hear the village storyteller. The answer: “Television knows more stories than the storyteller, but the storyteller knows me.

As the panel discussion unfolded, each panelist’s input primarily focused on the mode of communication (remote vs. in-person) he or she uses most frequently, then the strengths and weaknesses of each. Lastly, Professor Stavish opened up the meeting so panelists could address questions from meeting attendees.

Modes of Communication

Bowen: Primarily works with virtual teams—some local, some out of state. Heavily dependent upon using Skype for Business for IM’ing, sharing screens, saving conversations, and recording. Also uses email, Trello, GoToMeeting, and GoToWebinar.

  • Krause: Delivers about 1/3 of his teaching online with assistance from tools like Canvas and email. He has also developed expertise in MOOCs (massive open online courses).
  • Leazer: Primarily relies on in-person, onsite communication with his team and those they support. Although mainly onsite and able to rely on the spoken word most often, he and his team heavily rely on email and instant messaging.
  • Vera-Burgos: Has participated in a mix of face-to-face and online graduate courses; however, she mainly shared her experience with the online courses. Per Vera-Burgos, with the help of Skype, even group projects are doable in a remote environment.

Prof. Stavish first had panelists talk about the strengths of remote and face-to-face communication, then the weaknesses. Lastly, she asked the audience to share their questions with the panel.

Advantages of remote communication

  • Reaching everyone at once—local and nonlocal
  • Affordance / affordability
  • Convenient
  • Flexible
  • Tools often provide full transcripts of the meeting exchange
  • Forces participation
  • Removes administrative minutiae (like taking attendance)
  • Easy to work into your daily routine
  • No commute
  • Attendees don’t make others ill when participating if they don’t feel well
  • Work or take classes from anywhere
  • Stays more on point
  • Participants can take time to formulate responses without all eyes on you

Advantages of face-to-face communication

  • Thousands of years of experience!
  • Everyone has the basic skills honed over generations
  • Provides immediate interaction
  • Able to read body language
  • Removes technology barriers
  • Easier for communicating complicated topics
  • Easier to determine when something is not clear or has been misunderstood by participants
  • Larger bandwidth (a lot of information in a shorter time)

Disadvantages of remote communication

  • Harder to detect confusion on the part of participants
  • Sometimes need to wait for answers (email, posting comments, etc.)
  • More difficult to discern corporate culture
  • Hard to tell if people are focused
  • More prone to technical issues that disrupt the communication (someone referred to this as the “commute” of the online environment)
  • Can’t always replicate the user environment
  • Loss of “serendipity” or the gathering information by chance—in the kitchen, at the coffee center, etc.
  • Harder to get to know one another on a personal level
  • Presenter (or instructor) has to be much more prepared
  • Participants and students have to work harder
  • Easy to lose impetus with participants
  • Confirming the actual identity of participants at the other end
  • Lack of opportunity to develop social relationships
  • Usually more preparation involved
  • Student risk a negative perception of degrees earned from online-only universities
  • Participants are at the mercy of some meeting facilitators and instructors who aren’t trained in effective remote communication

Disadvantages of face-to-face communication

  • Everyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well!
  • People less inclined to ask questions when all eyes are on them
  • Never stop learning; just because you’re working face-to-face doesn’t mean you don’t need to prepare
  • People not as likely to risk embarrassment by suggesting unconventional ideas
  • More expensive and less convenient—if everyone is not local
  • More opportunity for discrimination based on race, gender, etc.

Observations from the audience

  • Face-to-face communication can make it a bit easier to put your foot in your mouth and harder to get it out again.
  • Online communication seems much more structured; face-to-face has potential for more hands-on / active participation.
  • The subject of a course/meeting has a lot to do with whether students/employees want to be online or in-person.
  • Easier to impart information online; not so easy to impart knowledge online
  • Humans have been taking advantage of “remote communication” long before computers hit the scene. Example: Today’s students and employees learn from “experts” who shared their findings centuries before.
  • Online discussions are more likely to deteriorate into inappropriateness, and more quickly.
  • Convenience and flexibility are absolutely important to today’s workers and students.
  •  Remote experiences cannot completely replace the effectiveness of “in the room” experiences—like attending the theater, going to a concert, etc.