I’ve just agreed my first face to face business meeting for almost fourteen months. I’m looking forward to the familiar, productive push and shove that you get when you get into open debate and press the search for the right idea or solution. None of that stuttering audio as Zoom or Teams tries to make sense of many voices going at once. No winner by combat, decided by he-who-speaks-longest.
I’m really looking forward to the familiarity of all those different signals and the richness of communication that goes alongside what’s said in a conversation between two people that isn’t intermediated by technology. I’ll be able to reach for pen and paper and scribble out a diagram to help bring an idea into focus. How cool is that!? Since we’ll be meeting in the garden of a pub, I’m also looking forward to being able to use a mouthful of fish and chips to give me time to think of the right way to reply.
There’s a whole new challenge, though. This will be a return to the familiar in part, but it’ll also be a leap into the unknown.
There’s a whole new set of conventions that we’ll need: when is it acceptable to ask to meet, and when is it acceptable to ask not to meet? Each of these will carry different undertones of acceptability in the unspoken hierarchy between supplier and customer, advisor and client, and between different roles up and down the greasy pole of every organisation. What’s acceptable and what isn’t in each of the different scenarios and situations, and between all the different characters in the real and perceived hierarchy of business life?
There was a time when all “important” meetings had to be face to face, and a ‘phone call had an intrinsically different perceived status from that of a Meeting, whatever the subject matter or deliverable. Will this new world of mixed types of interaction be the same? Might a face to face meeting acquire an extra cache, an extra value to be agreed to only when you’re willing to confer the status, make the chess move or be willing to concede it?
What are the acceptable things to negotiate? Will the meeting be outside? Can you ask whether the person you’re meeting has mixed closely with lots of opther people recently? Should you share personal information if the person you’re living with is vulnerable or shielding? Should you be willing to be flexible with your own health risks in return for securing an important face to face meeting? How might your questions and responses be seen and affect the balance of influence? When can you pull rank and request more strongly or decline?
Aside from the psychological nuances and inevitable negoitiation, how will the practicalities work, when we all know that the calendar is hard to manage with all the different Zoom calls running back to back? How will we mix working from home with not working from home? How does one meeting plus travel time barge its way into that tight schedule? How will we justify the travel time each way, when we could do the meeting on Zoom, and fit another load of stuff either side instead of sitting in traffic? Should you wear a mask? Should you wear one all the time? What will your choice of mask say about you, and will it be an expression of your character in the way socks and ties used to be?
I suspect that this is going to be rather challenging and fraught with tension and misunderstanding, as we work out when we can ask for a face to face meeting, decide when we should accept and when we can decline, and how we make the value judgement about all the different factors, scheduling realities and political gamesmanship.
For now, though, it’s just great to have the prospect of meeting up, and even the thought of a two hour drive each way round the M25 has a weird appeal, just because of its novelty. What the mix will look like in a year’s time and how we’ll navigate it, though, is anyone’s guess.
Peter is chairman of Flexiion and has a number of other business interests. (c) 2021, Peter Osborn