COVID-19: Business Formalities that Will Change

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, recommended last week that we do away permanently with the handshake, I let out a cheer. I have long loathed shaking hands to the point that I sometimes dreaded meeting people because I would have to shake their germ-infested hand.

The first addition I made to my desk after starting my job was a large dispenser of Purell—and this was 10 years ago, well before most of us were thinking about pandemics.

What other changes should occur in business formalities? Are in-person meetings preferable or should they only happen when there is a clear advantage to meeting in-person versus online or over the phone? A company I worked for briefly as a freelancer had as its policy that e-mail communications were always preferable. That policy most likely had nothing to do with the spread of germs, but rather with efficiency. That company’s decision-makers felt that e-mail was a speedier and more effective way to communicate than face-to-face. I would agree! There’s no chance of a conversation getting diverted or the participants in the conversation walking away having forgotten what was said. The other clear advantage is no person-to-person contact. Not a bad idea, at least during cold and flu season during the winter.

How about non-essential travel? No one loves travel as much as I do. I’m a freelance travel writer for a magazine for travel agents, and have traveled across the world, from South America to Europe to Asia to Africa. Those were essential trips to the particular work I was doing. But what if, instead of travel writing, those trips were taken to discuss business matters that could just as easily be addressed over the phone or in an online meeting? The personal growth potential of travel is tremendous, so in addition to considering whether the meeting has to occur face-to-face, you also could think about the learning opportunities a trip to a new place would offer your employee.

With in-person interactions limited, COVID-19 has shown us how much can be done via Webinars and virtual conferences. Will live, in-person conferences happen as frequently when the crisis has passed? There are tremendous advantages, outside of disease control, to hosting a conference virtually. No travel expenses and much less interruption to an employee’s regular workflow. Like e-mail, actionable information can be captured more easily when online versus face-to-face. No business cards thrown haphazardly into the bottom of pockets and purses, and no forgetting the ideas that stemmed from a meeting. All of that information—from contact details to transcripts or notes from meetings—can be automatically transferred or copied and pasted into an employee’s electronic files. There is the potential in online meetings for there to be a digital trail of all interactions and conversations that take place. One-on-one in-person meetings can be set up after the online meeting if meeting a particular business acquaintance in person seems beneficial.

Job interviews will continue to happen in person, probably. Many years ago, when I was trying to move from Florida back home to the New York City metropolitan area, I asked my mother why I couldn’t just do the job interviews via videoconference. From her years in the workforce, she explained that people want to meet people in the flesh, face-to-face, if they are going to work side-by-side with them in an office. You’re going to have to work with the individual in an in-person setting, so you would want to meet him or her in person before finalizing the hire.

Yet, what if the hiring decision was all but made before meeting in-person? If conducted online, the multiple interviews of the hiring process could be done without knowing anything about a person other than that person’s qualifications and the quality of his or her answers to your questions. You could even use technology to obscure the pitch of a voice, so you wouldn’t know if the candidate was a man or a woman. Once you had decided you were highly satisfied with both the applicant’s qualifications and responses to your questions, you could invite the person in for an in-person meeting. At that point, you would just be making sure there wasn’t anything disqualifying such as an unprofessional in-person presentation or a lack of in-person cordiality.

Like Dr. Fauci’s recommendation that we let the handshake go, I see many interpersonal improvements that could come from our COVID-19 social distancing ordeal—including not having to deal with “close-talkers?”

What business formalities do you hope will change from the COVID-19 experience? What business interpersonal traditions do you want to resume?

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