I heard the expression ‘Zoomed out’ the other day to describe the feeling of exhaustion that back-to-back video calls can bring. The person also commented that they could not wait for the return to reality.
Indeed, there is a growing excitement that we will be returning to a normality. There is, it seems, a national ‘countdown clock’ to the day restrictions are lifted. I got caught up in this a little bit last week when I travelled for my first face-to-face meeting for a year, and it felt like a liberating and exciting experience.
During the COVID period, despite initial fears, our business has thrived with 27 new projects since March 2020, two new consultants joining (Nigel Stott and Cathy Kirby) and employing our first two full-time employees (Anthony and Reena). In this period, we have worked with clients we have never met face-to-face, undertaken many workshops, and completed end-to-end procurement projects and system go-lives.
So why the need for a face-to-face meeting now?
The project in question is extremely nuanced and requires input from many different areas of the business; however, the very same thing could be said of a Practice Management System replacement which we have successfully pulled off remotely.
Whilst we have undertaken many effective interviews, workshops and brainstorming sessions in MS Teams or Zoom the sessions do sometimes lack the spontaneity and ‘side chat’ that face-to-face meetings bring. We’ve all been there on online meetings where somebody wants to input into the conversation but forgets they are on mute, or multiple people are speaking at the same time because the body language, so easy to read and react to in person, just doesn’t present itself on a video. Some firms get around this by having a protocol of ‘raising your hand’ when you want to make a point but that can result in a very salient point not being made for several minutes as the current speaker fully finishes – and with a risk of not being made at all.
The resulting staccato nature of online meetings is at times not conducive for project discovery meetings. However, the main challenge of online meetings is building the personal relationships which are so important in any major project. Those personal ‘getting to know you’ conversations about family, interests and even the weather just do not seem to happen so easily in an online environment, but they come naturally in the face-to-face environment. Equally there are just times when a face-to-face is needed and we crave meeting people or just a change of scene.
Back with a bang?
Last week the old world was back with a bang. My in-person meeting involved a 230-mile round trip, leaving home at 7 AM for a 10am meeting and returning home at about 6.30pm
The meeting itself was fantastic and the benefits that the face-to-face interaction gave over an online meeting made the trip worthwhile. I felt I had a deeper conversation around the challenges the firm faced than I would have achieved with an online meeting but most importantly I felt a deeper connection to the people I was meeting with. I also got to know more about the firm, the challenges and the individuals involved than I would have done online.
As a sociable person I thoroughly enjoyed the meeting and the level of engagement we achieved, and I came out of the session absolutely buzzing.
Full steam ahead to the past?
But as I was driving home I started to think about whether I wanted to return to my old way of operation. As a long-in-the-tooth consultant, I’ve done my fair share of travel. Pre-Covid it would be a normal day to leave home at around 6 AM, drive for two or three hours before undertaking a full day consultancy engagement. I would regularly be out of the house for 14 or 15 hours.
Between March 2019 and Feb 2020, I covered 23,477 business miles; during the Covid year it was a mere 152 miles, all done in the first week of March. It’s a similar picture on train travel with costs dropping from £4056 to £189.50. Overall annual travel cost savings are in the region of £15K, plus countless hours of time.
The figures I’ve used in these examples are just my own personal costs. It is highly likely all our consultants would have a similar level of travel. As we pass on our travel costs to clients it’s not really something that we monitor as a business but taking a step back it’s a frightening amount of money we’ve been spending.
The main thing I noticed after my day trip was how tired I was the next day, perhaps I’m getting old, but nearly six hours of driving on top of a lively and engaging workshop was quite exhausting. I was vroomed out, not zoomed out. On top of that, other than catching up on podcasts and my audiobook the six hours was a dead, unproductive time.
As an IT consultancy we have struggled over the years to encourage our clients to make use of technology such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. But that genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and law firms have embraced the technology they have resisted for so long. Whilst I want to return to meeting people face-to-face I think I am going to be considering more closely what is the most efficient way to undertake an engagement. From the conversations I have had so far with clients they seem comfortable continuing with a remote engagement with the occasional face-to-face and more social meeting.
I expect like many I will try to develop an approach which sustains the work/life balance (mainly due to lack of travel time) which I have been able to adopt in the last year. I just need to identify those times when the client/consultant relationship or project is still best served by vroom rather than Zoom.