Do business meetings lose some of their value when conducted via a video link as opposed to face-to-face? It is just one of the questions companies will be asking themselves as we begin to emerge from lockdown.
Without doubt, technology has provided communication links that have enabled the wheels of commerce to keep turning. We have all come to appreciate the convenience and efficacy of Zoom or Microsoft Teams when holding meetings with customers or colleagues. We have learnt how to hold sales meetings, pitch for new business, and even recruit senior personnel without leaving our seats.
But that situation may change soon, when the threat of COVID-19 has been eradicated/reduced and travel restrictions start to relax. The real poser is whether the changes forced on us should become permanent.
Those in control the purse strings will naturally point to cost savings on overseas travel, accommodation and hospitality. But there are traps for those who put economy above customer service. The Association Management recently listed the downside of relying solely on virtual communications:
Possible lack of interaction
Not able to read body language
Do not get the personal interaction and connectivity
Reliant on internet speed and stability
More difficult to chair than in-person meetings
Possible security issues with virtual meeting platforms
We all have our own views, but experience has taught us that in certain markets – the Middle and Far East, in particular – personal contact is regarded as not only respectful but forms a vital part of building professional understanding and trust over the longer term; it can sometimes be what sets companies apart from their rivals.
The other nagging question is whether companies will want staff currently working from home to return to the office. There will always be bosses who want to see employees on the premises 9 to 5 because it proves (to them at least) that staff are working and not shirking. But that attitude has been challenged during the pandemic. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that staff have proved to be not only more productive at home but are also less stressed because they have more flexibility. Those working in international sales have not been able to work GMT office hours anyway because of the time zones; Zoom meetings are routinely taking place round the clock every day.
But the trick must surely be to learn from the experience of the past twelve months, keep the best bits and, above all, keep an open mind. Technology has been a revelation, but it may not always be the best way to do business in the long run.