Is it game over for face-to-face business?

The coronavirus crisis has forced a rethink of the way we do business, and while it’s perhaps a rethink that was in the pipeline already, the situation we find ourselves in has certainly accelerated it.

Not only are people increasingly working from home in the present environment, but actual business owners and managers are starting to back their decision. Although there has been something of a publicity campaign driving at getting people back in the office and start working face-to-face, a recent rise in infection rates is likely to blunt that drive.

is face-to-face business over?As it becomes clear that people are largely happy to keep working in this way, there arises something of a question: if workers can work from home, and Zoom meetings are as productive as getting together in person, is there a case to be made that the days of face-to-face business are coming to an end?

There are competing considerations to be made in answering this question; it’s not as simple as a yes/no binary. So let’s look at what we need to be bearing in mind as we face the future. 

Some businesses have to be in-person

In at least one sense, the idea of face-to-face business being over for good is unthinkable. For one example, the field of wellness and health can move partially online, but your GP can’t palpate a tender area nor test your reflexes over a secure connection. For that, both parties need to be in the same room. This is true even with an infection risk, but as that risk lifts (and it must, eventually), people will want to go to the hairdresser or a nail bar – and that’s never going to be something you can do online.

So some sectors of the business world will remain very much a 3D issue, but even restaurants and pubs are experimenting with contact-free ways of delivering their services, so there will be a very changed landscape when we’re finally through the Virus Age.

The “productivity” myth is not weathering well

There has been a movement for some time to get more people working from home – as we’ll see later on, there are advantages to it beyond the worker’s own comfort and routine – but there have been disagreements. The main counterargument against home-working has been that people are less productive if they are allowed to work from their own sofa. However, it’s far from clear that this is the case. No major study has yet been carried out on the impacts, but the signs are, if anything, to the contrary – people are more productive.

Consequently, presuming people can be provided with the right kit, even jobs which would previously have involved face-to-face interviews with customers can be taken online. If a worker doesn’t have to commute, and a customer has no need to travel to an appointment, then a range of different jobs, from solicitors to bank account sales, just became a lot more convenient.

People want to “speak to a person”; or DO they?

We’ve all been through that Sisyphean task of navigating through a dozen phone menus just to get to the point where our call can be directed not to an automated line, but a person. We’ve all got frustrated, and barked the words “I just want to speak to someone!” so much so that it’s become a cliche. However, when it comes down to it, what a lot of people want in this situation is answers to their questions, not the reassurance of a human voice. Give people those answers in a convenient way, and the telephone vigil is not necessary.

An increasingly large cohort of customers actually prefer to hold conversations in text; it’s easier to reference something that was said earlier, and clarity is greater. So it makes sense for businesses to look for the best live chat for business websites and focus on solving problems at the first contact; this makes face-to-face meetings less important, and can be operated from anywhere.

Business owners may well be on the workers’ side now

With the signs that home-working doesn’t hurt productivity, business owners now find themselves in an interesting position. While many may have been skeptical about working from home, they have seen its advantages now that it’s been forced upon them. Then there’s another benefit which could have deeper implications.

Put it this way: Imagine the most self-interested, profit-motivated CEO you can. Even if this CEO cares very little for worker welfare, they are now making the calculation that a workforce providing the same (or better) productivity minus the rental on business premises, equals a better deal for them. It may be bad news for commercial landlords, but if it’s good for the workforce and the boss, then home-working is only going to increase.

Do people miss the office?

September kicked off with a strong chorus of voices telling us not only that it was time to get back to the office, but that, in fact, we miss the office. One brand even produced an ad based around our apparent desperation to get back to “weird carpets” and “putting on a tie”. It would be cynical to imagine that the ad agency were banking on the ad being screenshot and shared far and wide, but it was certainly pinballing around social media (with the brand logo on show) for most of the 3rd of September.

Even if people are missing the chance to catch up with friends face-to-face (which could have been done with a phone call or email at any time), they don’t seem to be missing it too much. Certainly not so much that they are desperate to get back to commuting for hours a day and choking down whatever lunch they can manage in the 30 minutes they have to buy and eat it. Again, this is a feeling that is mirrored by the customers who would have to travel and carve out time in their day for a journey into a city centre; by and large, people don’t really miss the office.

An end to unnecessary meetings?

Anyone who has worked for a considerable period of time in an office environment will know where the phrase “this meeting could have been an email” came from. Perhaps because there are so many people gathered together, and perhaps to allow the office to look busy, timewasting meetings are a staple of the pre-COVID era. This may be part of the reason that productivity doesn’t suffer when staff are working from home: those meetings may take to Zoom, but as often as not, they do become emails.

We’re all living through a pandemic; that changes people

People who were around at the time always know where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. More recently, we all remember September 11, 2001; these are events that change things, and colour everything that happens after them. The pandemic has not only affected pretty much every country in the world, it has been affecting them for more than half a year. Even if it clears up quickly from here, it is going to have pronounced impacts on people’s thinking and behaviour.

Are you going to make trips on packed buses when you don’t need to, when the pandemic is over? Are you going to sit down close to people you have never met? And consider also how you will react when there is a sign of another possible pandemic, which there certainly will be. With the availability of so many technological solutions, workarounds and safety protocol, will you simply go back to the way things were before all this?

Neither will most people.

Our environment would appreciate a break

While there were plenty of more pressing concerns back at the start of spring, most of us can probably remember seeing examples of rivers that had suddenly started to flow more clearly, cityscapes unencumbered by fog, and similar. If people aren’t commuting to work, then the agonising traffic jams that paralyse roads between 7-9am and again ten hours later will be, at the very least, reduced. With some concerted effort, they could be a thing of the past altogether.

It seems fanciful to imagine that people will simply stop going out for a drive in a post-Covid world, but if more people work at home, then there will simply be less strain on a road network in what used to be called “Rush Hour”. There will be fewer tailbacks, less pollution and a more agreeable environment. This is well within humanity’s capabilities – we know, because we saw how it worked less than half a year ago. Would people rather have face-to-face business meetings or breathe clean air?

As we acknowledged at the beginning, it would be hard (going on impossible) to ever fully put an end to face-to-face business. But as time goes by, it becomes clear that there are verifiable benefits to be had from going digital. As tech gets better, that’s something that is only likely to evolve in a forward direction.