Splendid isolation and the personal touch
I remember years ago writing an article wondering what effect e-mail and the Internet would have on the face-to-face, personal interaction that underpins so much of Irish society and business at a local and national level.
At the time, there were still many who believed personal meetings would still be a very significant part of business and customer interaction. Understandably so. Ireland, far more than the UK or the US, was a country that relied on social engagement at a physical level.
People liked to meet those they were doing business with, shake their hands, look them in the eye, talk to them face-to-face. In many ways, there was a much stronger social element to business in Ireland than in many other countries.
But while Ireland may not have been as quick to embrace the new ways of doing business as some other countries, there’s no doubt it has moved very much in that direction. Most of us have become very comfortable doing business over the phone, the internet and via e-mail. We order and buy a lot of goods over the Web.
It has brought advantages in terms of geography and reach. Travel in Ireland is not always easy. The roads can be bad and alternative modes of transport are limited.
It’s hard for most businesses, especially SMBs, to have a physical presence in enough parts of Ireland to provide a service to customers across the island effectively. E-commerce and the Web have made it much easier for them to reach customers across the island and deliver goods to them.
Ireland’s geographical location on the periphery of Europe has been mitigated to some extent by the ability to communicate and remotely sell and buy from businesses on the continent.
The barriers to physical trade currently being erected between Ireland (as part of the EU) and the UK are having an effect on how businesses on this island trade, who they trade with, and where they choose to trade.
From a physical point of view, this requires bypassing the UK to a much greater extent in terms of where we most economically source products from and where we can most effectively export a larger amount of our products and services to.
In this regard, we have been fortunate, to some degree, that the conduct of business has already shifted so much from face-to-face, physical interactions to distanced communications and virtual meetings.
Convenience is king
The effect of the lockdowns since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold has been to accelerate the process of making virtual and remote connections the de facto method of doing business for all companies in Ireland (and most other countries in Europe). Video conferencing has taken the place of physical face-to-face meetings. Applications like Zoom and Teams have replaced meeting rooms and done so very effectively in the vast majority of cases. While dealing with the inconveniences of lockdown, people have discovered the convenience of remote working and remote meetings.
Face-to-face meetings and personal interaction aren’t going to disappear entirely, but we’ve seen a world where it did and it wasn’t nearly as terrible as some people might have thought it would be. So, it’s unlikely that businesses and their employees will go back wholeheartedly to the way things were before.
There will be some personal mixing and engagement but much less than there was. One of the things businesses overlooked, even as they enabled a greater level of remote engagement with their customers, was how that trend could be applied to the way their employees did their work. After all, your customer is someone else’s employee and vice versa. They’re the same people so why should they prefer one thing as customers and something different as employees?
Many people tend to forget that employees can gain powerful personal benefits with the convenience of spending more of their time working remotely. And no matter how remote it might be, how much more personal can you get than working from home?