In December 2019, Zoom, the virtual collaboration platform, was averaging 10 million participants per day. In April 2020, they surged by 30x to 300 Million participants per day. And that is just on Zoom! Add in their competitors — Blue jeans, Webex, Skype, Facetime — and you can safely estimate that more than half a billion people were in a virtual meeting today. Covid-19 has accelerated the era of the remote workplace. And with it, it has altered the way millions of professionals, who rely on in-person engagement, operate. Do not get me wrong: peer-to-peer promotion and sales will still exist. But it will be different. Radically different. Over the past couple of months, I interviewed over 25 professionals, from across industries, who depend on peer-to-peer engagements. These folks are the canaries in the coal mine. From these conversations, I have gleaned insights about what to expect in the near future and what might be done to stay on the competitive edge.
This Time it’s For Real: The remote work concept is far from new. In the mid-1990’s, experts were predicting a movement to “telecommuting”. Internet access in the household was becoming as commonplace as a phone line. Fortune 500 giants like American Express and AT&T made headlines by allowing employees to telecommute. But there were headwinds. Even with the explosion of broadband access, deep seated cultural resistance remained in the executive offices. In a now infamous all-hands memo, former Yahoo C.E.O., Marissa Mayer, suddenly called an abrupt end to remote work at the company. In it, she stated that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” But now, in a matter of a few months, Covid has launched a global remote workplace experiment that has demonstrated that most knowledge workers can be productive and effective when working remotely.
Power to the People: Running a remote company is no longer an operational matter. It is an employee satisfaction and retention matter. Knowledge workers are requesting it. In a recent study conducted by Innovation Leader, they found that 75% of corporate leaders were reluctant to spend the same amount of time in the office as they did prior to COVID-19. While another study found that 36% of those working from home, said they would like to continue to work from home after the pandemic is over. Once you “go remote,” you aren’t likely to go back. Freedom from long commutes and flexibility to design your work setting and schedule is extremely enticing, especially for the millennial generation. The earliest remote work experiments yielded modest changes. But the consensus is that this time it is different.
Shift Happens: With the surge in virtual meetings, we have to meet our customers where they are. In the healthcare industry, medical offices have already been reengineered for social distancing and to be contact-free. Insurers are reimbursing for virtual consultations and telemedicine. Office staff are increasingly working remotely. Subsequently, they have even less available time to socialize with sales representatives. I spoke with John, a veteran in the sales force at a large pharmaceutical company, who is responsible for several large accounts in the New York metropolitan area. He could tell you the name of virtually every security guard, floor nurse and doctor in the nearby hospital. His “chance” meetings with doctors in the hallways or breakroom would score him 2 to 3 precious minutes to discuss a product or research. But with physicians dividing their time between on-site patient appointments and offsite teletherapy, the number of his chance meetings, he believes, will become increasingly scarce. And John is far from alone. Across industries, salespeople that I interviewed unanimously believe that their access to customers will precipitously decline. They are expecting a major shift in how they engage with customers but they just aren’t sure what that will be.
What Might this Mean?: Organizations and professionals who have traditionally depended on on face-to-face interactions are feeling the anxiety of these changing circumstances. Even though quarantine restrictions are gradually lifting, many barriers are likely to remain. In-person meetings and outside visitors will be reduced. Office occupancy is likely to be down for the foreseeable future with residual concern over the use of mass transit. Even the traditional greetings of a handshake and personal touch are likely to verboten. So how do business leaders prepare and respond to these inevitabilities? From my interviews with senior leaders, I’ve found that many leaders are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. They are hoping this will blow over. But just because you wish for something to happen does not increase the probability of your wish coming true. That said, there were several respondents whose companies are aggressively reinventing how they engage with customers given the changing landscape. Here are a few insights that rose to the top and some of the potential implications.
Plan for a Congested Digital Highway: The most common response that I heard to the question about what to do in the face of limited face-to-face customer interactions, was “we will increase our volume of digital outreach.” The reality is, however, that most customers are already overwhelmed by a surfeit of digital communication. We have our limits. And as companies ratchet up their digital outreach, customers will become even more flooded with requests and offers. In response, customers will be more reluctant to engage. And customers will seek out more sophisticated ways at filtering out your digital overtures. Inevitably, this will create an awfully expensive signal/noise problem. What will separate the winners from the losers will be how you establish trust and credibility. Product based selling will not work. Human-centered selling will. There will be a movement away from the transaction and company need and a movement towards customer understanding and empathy. In the end, the customers that feel a deeper connection with you will be the ones who will join you on a zoom call or respond to your digital outreach.
Solutions Found Outside of Your Business: Most business teams are scrambling to redefine how to operate in the Covid era. They have largely looked inward but few are finding solutions inside of their businesses. After all, if they already had found solutions, why would they have kept them a secret until now? In my interviews, I found an intriguing pattern amongst the companies that felt confident that they have a path forward. Many of those companies were looking outside at other industries and vocations to find inspiration. In the words of Pablo Picasso, “good artists imitate and great artists steal.” Pharmaceutical companies were studying insurance companies. Insurance companies were looking at real estate brokerages. And realtors were trying to borrow inspiration from fitness companies like Peloton. In each case, they were uniquely defining their organizational challenge and then going outside of their own corporate network to find what has/is working in other domains. And then they are adapting ‘what works’ to their particular environment. This is far from a new approach. But an effective one that is helping a few companies crack the code.
Human Contact Still Matters: Despite it all, most interviewees expected in-person interactions NOT to go away. And of course, they are right. Humans beings are wired for social contact and crave human interactions. Regardless of how tech-savvy a customer may be, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to capture the attention of a customer. It is much harder to say “no” to someone’s face than it is to say “no” in an email. Nevertheless, interviewees estimated a decline in face-to-face meetings of up to 50% post-Covid. With such a precipitous decline in face time, sales representatives will need to be adept at building trust, relationships and making the in-person time count. First impressions will matter. And salespeople will be evaluated quickly on a continuum of delivering “high-value” to “low-value “services. Those who build trust and deliver high-value will have the opportunity to digitally extend their in-person interactions whether it’s DMing on LinkedIn or text messaging on the cellular. Trust will be the gateway to multi-channel communication and creating an even more enhanced and personalized relationship.
We are suddenly living in a different age. Even as the world begins to steadily return to “normal”, people are increasingly comfortable working remotely and avoiding unnecessary in-person interactions. These new tendencies will not be easy to change. The era of remote work and virtual engagement has arrived. And research is finding that, we cannot simply expect for workers to go back to the way things were before. As a company or professional who relies on in-person engagement you will need to adapt. To remain relevant, you must deepen your understanding, empathy and above all else, your innovation capabilities, to thrive in these new and uncertain ways of being together.