Thanks to virtual meetings, you can now negotiate two (or more) deals with several parties sitting on different continents in one afternoon. At least, in theory. The technology is powerful, but what does it actually make possible, and what did we lose when so many negotiations moved online?
My experience is that online meetings tend to have a more focused agenda than in-person meetings. A focused agenda allows participants to prepare for negotiating certain specific points. Focus means efficiency, and clearly on-line meetings bring considerable time savings.
One would think that an in-person meeting would encourage people to prepare more diligently. That is, however, not my experience.
Why? First of all, there may be less focus on a specific agenda. “Let’s all get together in Helsinki and see what we can get done”, may sometimes be what has been agreed beforehand. Perhaps all the practical fuss around the travel and finding your way to the physical meeting takes part of the focus from actual meeting preparations.
At the same time, there may be a feeling that “we’ll have time to prepare and coordinate once we get there” – time that many times will be lost in the logistics.
Or are experienced negotiators just more confident that in a face-to-face negotiation they can just wing it?
Relationship-building and bonding, not to mention getting to know each other, is more difficult virtually. In an in-person meeting you have those moments when you talk about the local weather and have breaks when you get coffee and small talk. This type of interaction does not come naturally on Teams or Zoom.
For discussing and resolving technical, contractual issues, online is great. Everyone has access to their notes and drafts and it is easier to turn everyone’s attention to e.g. a specific contract clause.
Are human emotions less present when you only see the opposing party on the screen? Generally, I would say yes. It is more difficult to influence the atmosphere of the negotiations and the feelings of the negotiators remotely than when you are physically in the same room.
However, just as you can practice in-person negotiations and how to influence the people in the room, you can practice how to create the desired atmosphere in your online negotiations. The feelings and the atmosphere online can be similar, but the ways available for you to change the mood or communicate feelings are more restricted.
So is it better to negotiate online? I would say that it allows for different things. When you need to build relationships and sell ideas, face-to-face meetings with hand-shakes and lunches may be your choice. When you have more technical issues to resolve and need the parties to focus, you may choose a virtual meeting.
Many of the mechanisms are similar, but both in-person and online meetings have their strengths – so use both and choose wisely for your or your client’s benefit!