Connection or Relation? Can video calls replace personal business trips? My conclusion after another eight months of the pandemic.
In my last blog post, “Project Management in the Covid-19 Era”, I reported on the changing work situation due to Corona. Circumstances have eased somewhat since then. Many people, countries, and governments are beginning to know how to deal with the pandemic, and vaccination services exist – more accessible to some people than others. Nevertheless, uncertainty persists worldwide. There is talk of new variants of the virus – people remain cautious:
- projects continue to be “on hold”
- many clients are struggling with the financial aspects of their projects
- business travel will still be limited and difficult
- no reliable flight schedules and availability of “seats”
- Corona rules change according to pandemic situation and are different for each country (depends on final decision of local authorities)
- lockdowns in some countries will be maintained or resumed
- direct meetings with colleagues and customers are still restricted
Projects must not wait
Still, projects need to be implemented because the impairment in the economy and the closures do not change the main demands: People need reliable electricity, lighting and air conditioning to carry out their daily duties, even in times of pandemic-related restrictions.
With video calls and the latest technology, we’ve been working under pandemic conditions for about one and a half years now, fulfilling our tasks. Of course, the capabilities that are now available to us are amazing and very helpful. Video conferencing allows for considerable flexibility, but can a video call replace a personal business trip? Aren’t relationships with our customers more essential than simply being connected?
Analog tops digital
In my opinion, business trips and personal relationships with our customers are irreplaceable due to the following reasons.
- Pitfalls of technology
The technical quality of video chats has improved enormously in recent years, but we are still not immune to technical glitches. Transmissions are sometime jerky, break off or arrive with a time delay. All of this can affect concentrated collaboration. In addition, compatibility problems also occur due to different software.
- Cognitive limitations
Non-verbal communication suffers. Looks, gestures and facial expressions as well as body posture are not transmitted ideally. Therefore, misunderstandings, proper attention to cultural aspects or misinterpretations can sometimes arise quickly.
- Restricted social behavior
In Germany you used to shake hands, in France you used to kiss each other on the cheek, in Japan you used to exchange business cards in a very formal way, in video chats you say “hello” no matter what country you are talking to. Despite those technology advantages the rituals have a purpose and ultimately they create trust and show respect. Video chat exchanges will always be professional, somehow stiff and impersonal to some degree. Building a relationship or trust on such a basis is therefore not easy.
- No common movement
A video call lacks small breaks together where people can talk “off the record” or privately. You can’t show someone around the company or around the site and introduce them to the employees, you can’t take a break in the cafeteria, etc. This is usually a great opportunity to gather important information about the project, the situation around the project, the special “climate around the business” and also about the client and to improve the relationship.
Personal contact allows us to contribute our experience at an early stage of the project, when important decisions are made that form the “scaffolding” of future collaboration between client, consultant and contractor. Purely digital communication can complicate or delay such decision-making processes. It is important to know the specific needs of the customer and the project in order to tailor the service and the offer precisely to them – we call it “final stage tailoring”. In my experience, however, many RfPs (Requests for Proposals) do not include a detailed explanation of the project scope, with detailed descriptions of the project conditions and project constraints (technical, financial, social and political constraints) generally missing. This is often due to “quick turnaround”, rapid initial decisions, and pending urgent needs to be met by the project.
Moreover my personal experience has shown that I miss the site inspections. From a distance, projects, their progress and challenges are more difficult to evaluate. It is much nicer and effective to see a construction site grow with your own eyes.
Considering all the “Covid-19” consequences, on the basis of this knowledge my colleagues and I are ready to continue our support to clients and their projects. We have an understanding of any concerns customers may have and the major challenges caused by the pandemic. What counts for me is the person and the individual task I face. I maintain relationships and not just connections, because our customers, like me and the team, prefer to talk about it in person rather than on a digital basis in video conferences or via email. Finally, my conclusion is clear: Knowledge combined with experience, personal contact and proper social and soft skills (personality) are key – technology is only a tool.
Therefore, I encourage all colleagues to maintain personal contact with customers. What experience have you gained during Corona?