“You bump into someone at the airport or you’re in a meeting and you bump into somebody and one thing leads to another. A lot of business happens before, after, and around (planned) meetings,” says GOQii founder Vishal Gondal. “But with virtual meetings, this serendipity has gone away. Once the meeting/call is over, everything is over. There’s no coffee or chatter or any everyday things we’re used to.”
“I totally agree. The warmth of a handshake is something you can’t replace,” said Harsh Goenka, chairman, RPG Enterprises.
The missing element
Goenka says he spent the first six months of the pandemic talking to colleagues virtually to understand the repercussions of the pandemic. “I attended a lot of seminars and though we could see a lot of people virtually, the fact that we couldn’t meet left a void.” The first large social gathering in a while felt awkward, he says. “I found myself uncomfortable in the crowds and was sometimes at a loss for words. I did bump into a few business associates after a long time being away. (But) It all seemed somewhat surreal.”
Relationships are built out of personal rapport, created by eye contact, body language and plain spontaneous banter, says Goenka. CP Gurnani, managing director & CEO,
, agrees. “The need to connect with fellow beings is as old as the fire or the wheel,” he says. “As human beings, we are driven by our natural instincts of curiosity, adventure, and the need to make new relationships with ourselves and the people around us. It is important to keep that streak alive.”
Deeper, selective interactions
Gurnani, who recently started travelling and attending board meetings, offsites and professional events in-person, agrees that the pandemic has definitely changed the way we interact and do business. “However, now physical networking is slowly getting back on track, as we are relishing the warmth of togetherness, which is key for any good relationship,” he said.
Reconnecting in-person after a long spell has also helped forge deeper bonds. “I think (post-pandemic) everyone has become a lot warmer and kinder so it’s not (just) networking anymore,” says Shobana Kamineni, executive vice-chairperson,
, who recently reconnected with several old friends whom she hadn’t seen in two or three years at The Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence 2021 in May. It was almost like a reunion, she told ET Panache. “Everyone is making more of an attempt and going out there. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, put the pandemic behind us, I do think that we’ve learned so much from it — to be kinder and to take care of ourselves and people around us.”
Another surprising by-product of the pandemic is that people are more careful with their interactions. “You tend to prioritise and be more selective in who you actually meet and those are the people you really need to meet; the ones where your relationships really matter,” says Goenka. A lot of the courtesy calls and meetings have been casualties of the pandemic, he adds.
And serendipity still has a role to play, says Ghazal Alagh, Shark Tank India judge and co-founder of Honasa Consumer Pvt Ltd who recently bumped into Vivek Gambhir (boAt CEO) at the airport. “We ended up talking about family, kids, and other personal aspects instead of work, which was a pleasant change from our usual boardroom discussions,” she says.
Virtual is always an option
However, virtual meetings aren’t to be dropped from the calendar just yet. Deloitte global CEO Punit Renjen believes Zoom meetings have proven to be a game-changer and a great enabler during the pandemic. “It’s allowed a different type of networking. I don’t think a virtual coffee would ever substitute an in-person coffee but it certainly adds to the ability to network remotely using technology. It allows you to get together with colleagues all over the world which, particularly for a global company like ours, has been an enabler,” he says.
The pandemic made us realise that business is agnostic to one’s physical location, adds Alagh. “While the pandemic reduced physical events, it drastically increased virtual events and I think the participation in virtual events is far more as that does not involve the time commitment that a physical event would require. I personally have taken up far more event commitments virtually than I would have taken up offline.”
“Technologies such as the metaverse, augmented reality and virtual reality are also enabling mixed-reality immersive experiences, which can add value to the physical mode of interactions and networking,” says Gurnani. “We are now at the threshold of a rapidly changing, uncertain, paradoxical, and tangled world and digital technologies play a key role in enabling our survival. They catalyse business transformations — they humanise businesses by helping them think, sense, connect, communicate, secure, and act better than before.”