The rapid adoption of digital technology that the pandemic has brought about has been named ‘tech-celeration’ and has invited debate around which elements of the tech transformation will stay with us when the pandemic is over.
With this in mind, I read two diametrically opposed views on the future of work this week. Bill Gates claims that, post-pandemic, more than 50 per cent of pre-Covid business travel and more than 30 per cent of days in the office would not return. The same article cited Brian Kingston, head of real estate at Brookfield, who believes that the first bank to get everyone back in the office is going to “win a lot of business because they are getting back to having these face-to-face meetings and meeting with their clients.”
It’s not wasted on me that the leader of one of the largest tech firms in the world sees a world where offices are virtual and meetings are conducted by Teams. Equally, I recognise that someone in commercial property believes that offices are essential.
But what seems missing to me – and probably sits in between these polar views – is a consideration of what the customer wants. Have we forgotten that, while the customer wants a decent product or service, at a good price, he or she is also a human being and wants to build a trusting relationship? Efficiencies can be gained by holding meetings on Teams. But long term relationships have always required face to face interaction.
Where we have come from
To go back, we spoke about this very issue during the first lockdown, and revisited it recently when lockdown two arrived. It is my opinion that we will ultimately have fewer people in the office than before 2020, as we have seen that it is possible to do a lot of things working remotely. Connectivity has been proven to work. However, as the CEO of Netflix noted, offices offer up serendipitous meetings at a photocopier, or in the office kitchen, and this is where much of the innovation in a business comes from. It is also where problems are solved and lessons shared.
For example, at Reliance High-Tech we have recently successfully replaced our ERP system and while a number of our key stakeholders have been forced to use Teams to get this done, the pandemic came halfway through this process and undoubtedly made the implementation more difficult. We have noticed that there are certain things that you just need to be together for.
Before the first lockdown, there were occasions where we could see that an individual was struggling with a particular stage during implementation, just through body language and other visual cues. Someone in the office was able to pick up on these signs and then offer up the fact that they had had the same issue, and provide a way around it. Doing the same thing in Teams involves everyone escalating every challenge they face, adding time and complexity before it can be addressed.
What about apps such as Slack, Monday.com and Asana, you ask? I would argue that real- life working shows that information flow is essential, and this often happens more efficiently in the organic setting of an office than when logged and submitted – even in a conversational and immediate way – on tech platforms. Slack and similar apps rely on a user asking for help and reporting that they have an issue. Serendipitous meetings allow workers to overhear someone, notice their issue, and spontaneously offering help. Much academic study has gone into the way businesses store and use the information they hold; information that rests inside all the workers in and across the organisation. Leveraging that information relies on it being effectively captured and shared. I believe that happens most easily in a well-run, co-operational and encouraging office environment.
We as a business will certainly come out of lockdown changed. We absolutely see the value in creating more efficient proximity to our customers using technology, which will give us more customer touchpoints and remove much of the delay associated with unnecessary travel. But anecdotal feedback from our customers suggests that, as human beings, face to face contact will still be valued. More than that, it will remain essential: the use of Teams will not supplant the human need for contact that sits at the centre of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
As a business we will make a more educated view of the cost and practicality of business travel post-Covid, but it will absolutely not go away. Is internet dating a replacement for the real thing? No. There is no internet-based replacement for face to face conversation and I hazard there will never be, even when Zoom e-inevitably introduces holographic video calls in a few years’ time!
To return to the tech-celeration, clearly some things will stay changed. Delivery drivers always used to require a signature of a parcel, but this was relaxed during the pandemic. In the past, this was deemed too risky and expensive because of the potential for theft. In six months’ time, will drivers revert to asking for a signature? What if theft and loss only went up slightly, but the savings on redeliveries dropped by a larger amount? As we redesign the world around us, perhaps the very things we were scared of weren’t really an issue – just like those unnecessary delivery signatures.
In the end, however, we like to touch, try and feel the things we want to buy. Most prefer to try on clothes before they buy them. I talked last week about door handles offering up a ‘handshake’ with a building. Will that go away? We are social creatures: we value social interaction and, while we may get a buzz from online likes and shares, they are no substitute for social interactions that sit high up in our hierarchy of needs. We can augment them, we can supplement them, but we cannot replace them.
At Reliance High Tech, we are a people business. Of course, we must be efficient. And our adoption of the tech-celeration has helped drive further innovation in everything we do to bring value to our customers. Fundamentally, however, we are a people business and we are about relationships as much as technology. We have to get the balance right.