Welcome to 2022. Now What?
2022 arrived with the first snowstorm of the season in Chicago on New Year’s Day. Happy New Year came with a snow shovel to dig a path. But what happened to 2021? What will we make of 2022?
Given the continuing Coronavirus concerns, 2021 blurred with 2020. Canceled in-person conferences continued virtually. Delayed networking meetings staggered into re-existence vanishingly. Annual planning cycles were secondary to dealing with exigencies of cost increases, logistics delays, supply chain shortages, and employee acquisition and retention challenges. The lack of the usual annual rituals of business made it hard to demarcate the end of 2020 from all of 2021.
2022 will be different.
Covid-19 is transitioning from pandemic to endemic. One way or the other, we will have to learn to live with the disease pressure. The risk avoidance mantra of “out of an abundance of caution” will be replaced with a risk mitigation reality. So, how should we embrace our risk-mitigating but risk-accepting new future in 2022?
Let’s Meet Again
Of primary importance, let’s meet one another again. Let’s get our customer meetings, conferences, networking, and in-person classes rejuvenated. Let’s create a space for creating random interchanges with each other once again to fill imaginations with new possibilities. It won’t be like before, but we need these direct engagements.
I met an executive from the construction industry at a bar late last year and we both lamented the absence of customer meetings and other face-to-face engagements. She shared how hard, if not nearly impossible, to convince a new customer to engage in their absence. Given her reality, she took to tempting past customers to join her for in-person meetings. Even those were often canceled or postponed indefinitely. No, let’s go back to face-to-face customer meetings with some new risk mitigation protocols.
I attended numerous virtual conferences, and each has shared common plagues. Despite the best effort of the organizers, the shortcomings could not be well alleviated. Attendance is down by 30% to 50% from prior years. Many of those in attendance were checking emails or otherwise performing tasks while speakers would present in the background. Executives, taking advantage of the absence of travel costs, sent their reports to attend for their professional development but otherwise were rarely present themselves. Direct conversation with and between attendees was challenging at best, from technological limitations and personal distractions to simple questions about which channel people should use to communicate. (The virtual conference platform? A direct chat visible by everyone? LinkedIn? Email? Text?) How useful is a virtual conference presentation given the dearth of audience engagement? Let’s return to in-person conferences with some new risk mitigation protocols.
Networking has always been a challenge. Most networking engagements are fruitless in developing new business, finding new employment, or identifying new investments, but some are invaluably precious. Through networking, we explore ideas and opportunities that otherwise would be even harder to identify. In 2021, many networking events attempted to restart in the second semester. Attendance was often robust but sometimes sparse. Some restarted with consistency. Many launched and died quickly. This is a shame. Let’s restart in-person networking with some new risk mitigation protocols.
Online teaching is perhaps ok for some, but much is lost. For one, we haven’t come up with a good approach to examining how well a student has learned from a quarter’s worth of teaching as online exams are fraught with cheating and fraud. For another, many subjects benefit from classroom discussions, discussions which are extremely hard to generate in an online Zoom meeting. And, shifting student collaborative projects, which are always difficult, from direct conversations to virtual meetings have reduced the collaborative conversation desired of the task. Again, we should restart in-person classes with some new risk mitigation protocols.
In-Person Will Return
People say you can’t go back. Yet, in this area of direct, face-to-face, interaction and communication, I confidently predict a return.
Precedence is instructive. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, which lasted two years until a less deadly variant arrived in 1920, we had the roaring 20’s. Dance parties, social engagements, and yes, face-to-face business meetings all returned.
In-person interaction is a part of our fuller communication. We read faces, body language and tone-of-voice better in-person than any Zoom-meeting or virtual-reality technology have enabled thus far. Without those social cues, we miss key pieces of information required for true engagement.
Humans are not purely biological, nor purely intellectual creatures. We are highly emotional and social creatures. It would be unnatural to suddenly stop interacting in person.
Commerce depends on evolving and changing markets and customer relationships. In-person engagements enable companies to develop old relationships and uncover new customers, individuals to commiserate over shared challenges and relate potential solutions, customers to explore new offerings and approaches, and students to learn more deeply and be marked more accurately.
Having shoveled through the snow obscuring that which lies below, I welcome the resurrection of in-person meetings in 2022.