IRL or URL? How will you choose?


Prior to March 2020, the company’s external sites were common and used for a wide variety of purposes: mission / vision / values ​​sessions, strategy workshops, team building, sales meetings, leadership development, business process redesign , gathering business requirements, planning accounts, thinking about design. , etc. Then Covid-19 hit, and literally overnight the off-sites were moved online or canceled entirely.

In our book, Cracking complexity (released in 2019), we offer a 10-step formula for dealing with complexity, including step 5, “Locate the solvers”, and spend several pages explaining why face-to-face is much preferred over any other medium when it comes to getting large groups to work together to find a solution. It was the truth as we understood it at the time, after nearly two decades of first-hand experience.

Last March, like so many others, we had to adapt overnight and migrate our formula and business model to digital, because the only option to locate solvers was to do it virtually. Having successfully made this pivot, we have seen and now believe that everyone has a choice in the future – go back to traditional off-sites (“in real life” or “IRL”), continue to collaborate remotely (distributed and digitally connected, or ‘URL‘) using good process on platforms like Miro and Zoom, or do both.

The first questions about the URL

By being forced away from IRL sites for 6-18 months, people had many important questions to consider:

  • Can we make big decisions without being in the same room? Or can we only do it for small decisions?
  • Can we build culture from a distance? Can we build a strong team?
  • What activities work best in person? What works best with distributed people?
  • Can we create a level playing field for those who are far apart when others are in the room together?
  • Can we mix IRL and URL productively by making the most of both?
  • All other things being equal, what would we choose for our next offsite manager? Retirement from the board of directors? Annual sales meeting? And so on in the list.

For most organizations, the past inclination was to bring everyone together for anything that had high stakes, despite the cost of doing so and the time wasted traveling. The default was usually IRL when the stakes were high. Now, we think the default will switch to URL, unless there is an urgent need to bring people together in one place for a good reason. There is going to be a period of euphoria where people get together because they can, but once that time has passed it will come down to some basic math: the extra costs and time associated with IRI are worth- do they have the added advantage over the url?

And the answer will be “sometimes”, and increasingly, no.

What organizational needs will still require groups to meet in IRL?

Last May, in a conversation we had with Airbnb advisor Chip Conley, he shared his belief that: “The more transformative the experience (i.e. a wedding or Burning Man), the better it will be. necessary to live it IRL. The more transactional the experience (eg a conference), maybe it’s meant to be a URL, via something like Zoom. I think we’ll see more transactional experiences go digital and an increased desire for the IRL experience. In fact, the more digital we get, the more rituals we need, so we’ll likely see an increase in IRL experiences like festivals and pilgrimages. “

Translated into the business world, ‘rituals’, ‘festivals’ and ‘pilgrimages’ can include the annual sales meeting, offsite leadership or end user conference, steeped in tradition, primarily for the purpose of creating a team and / or build relationships. , and seen as an organizational rite of passage as people move up the corporate ladder. The intangible benefits of bringing everyone together for these occasions, sometimes, will likely outweigh the cost and risk. It will be the same, for example, during the first regrouping of teams after a reorganization or a major restructuring, or a post-merger integration.

Other factors that organizations will need to consider when deciding between IRL and URL include:

  • How easy is it to get all the necessary people together?
  • Is it safe to put them together?
  • How available are the people we need to meet?
  • How crucial is it that they are together to achieve the desired result?
  • Do we have time to put them together given the urgency of the situation?

Through the lens of these factors, Table 1 below lists situations in which IRI continues to be the default:

And Table 2 below shows the situations that we think will default URLs:

What about high-stakes “defining moments” that require busy people?

Note the inherent tension when thinking about what to do with it High-stakes “defining moments” (last row of table 1) which must involve “Time is money” and / or people who are short of time (last row of table 2). On the one hand, the stakes are high and we have a chance to get it right: isn’t face to face our best bet? On the other hand, the people we need are very difficult to bring together and cannot afford the time of unnecessary travel and / or to be away from other responsibilities for very long: shouldn’t we bend over backwards? four to accommodate their remote participation?

The truth is tension has always been there, and yet the default has been to bite the bullet and bring people together for defining moments. despite how busy they are and how inconvenient / impacting it is to move them to an external site. This is because most organizations have historically had little confidence in the effectiveness of remote interactions to accomplish what needs to be done at critical times, when the stakes are high.

This face-to-face bias still exists, but the past 18 months (or so) have given us a glimpse of what’s possible. The technology and infrastructure to enable remote meetings have certainly come a long way, although too often this translates into bad meetings because they are effective. meeting design did not follow. However, we have found in our work that many of the same practices and protocols that improve face-to-face meetings also apply to remote meetings, making them not only adequate but very effective. We wrote an article about it last fall.

Like good remote meetings, aided by good technology, good infrastructure and good process – will become more and more prevalent, the organization’s bias for IRI will change, and more and more often we will see organizations shifting their defining moments online (which is good for results and, either by the way, excellent for the environment).

And of course there will also be hybrid options

When it comes to successfully handling hybrid situations, where some people are IRL and other URLs, advancements in tools and processes are always needed. Much has been studied and said, for example, about the inherent inequity between those in the same room and those who “go online.” However, as these issues are resolved, organizations will have a more nuanced choice: IRL, URL, or both.


Distributed teams, whether in a city or around the world, can learn how to function well without meeting very often. And big strategic decisions can be made and plans worked out among important and busy people, using modern tools and good protocols and processes. Some organizations (especially global ones that have decades of practice) have gotten pretty good at it and are more productive working this way.

The pandemic has blurred the line between situations that clearly call for IRL and others where IRL is a luxury (or inconvenience) that can be avoided. We expect that after the initial euphoria of post-pandemic hugs and handshakes, the new standard will permanently include much broader use of the URL, for purposes we didn’t think possible until March. latest.

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