Virtual technology has replaced face-to-face networking during the global pandemic
Stay home. Maintain social distancing. No gatherings of more than five people. COVID-19 isn’t exactly making it easy to network and maintain business communications these days. The accepted wisdom of communications is nothing beats in-person. Putting a face to a name, shaking hands, exchanging business cards, and engaging in conversation are the hallmarks of networking, but you can’t do that with everyone isolated at home or behind layers of personal protective equipment.
So, what is the alternative? The consensus answer seems to be: go online. Patrick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, says the Chamber has ramped up its webinar opportunities, offering one or two webinars per day. It’s offering virtual networking via zoom-like calls, plus virtual “cups of coffee”, Zoom cocktail parties, and virtual speed-networking.
Sullivan says, “I encourage people to speak up during these events. This is not a time to be humble.”
To replace the usual face-to-face communications, he suggests taking this time as an opportunity to check in with old friends, to update your LinkedIn profile, and reach out to those contacts via email and text, even if it’s just to ask how they’re doing.
One of the largest Chamber initiatives is the creation of the Nova Scotia Business Labour Economic Coalition. This group brings together businesses, non-profit groups, charities, government, and labour organizations, representing more than 200,000 Nova Scotians, to discuss as a group, and with government, the latest reactions to the pandemic, what was announced, and what more information is needed.
“Staying in touch is so important at this time, as is getting the latest information,” Sullivan says. Virtual communications has a lot of benefits, but it also has some pitfalls you need to avoid, says Ross Jefferson, president and CEO of Discover Halifax.
“We’re leaning on video,” Jefferson says. “They say 90 per cent of communications is body language, so it’s hard to pick-up tone or facial cues in a text or email.”
To avoid being misunderstood and to get the most out of your virtual communications, Jefferson has a three-point plan to offer.
“There are three things you need to keep in mind: 1. Take the initiative. Reach out to your networks. 2. Personalise it. Avoid mass emails. 3. Balance the formal and the informal. Avoid making everything formal. A lot of what we’re missing is watercooler talk.”
Jefferson says replacing informal watercooler talk is crucial. Discover Nova Scotia has implemented such things as a virtual open-door policy, allowing for chats between colleagues regardless if it’s business-related or not. Staff meetings have been increased to once a week, and time is specifically set aside just for chatting and checking in with each other.
However, all this extra effort to increase communications and outreach doesn’t come without a cost. If you add in potential layoffs or staff reductions, many businesses are busier now than before the pandemic struck.
“You need to recognize the volume of work is incredibly high right now,” Jefferson says. “Some businesses might be challenged. So, it’s more important than ever to allow for the time to maintain communications.”
The embracing of virtual workspaces and communications is an aspect of the current reality many experts believe will continue even after the health restrictions are eased and things start getting back to “normal.”
However, that doesn’t bode well for those who may lack the resources or digital literacy needed to utilize these tools to their fullest.
“It’s important from a social perspective to reach out to those perhaps not as comfortable with new technology,” Jefferson says.
One such group includes immigrants and international students looking to make a new home in Halifax. Jennifer Watts, CEO of Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), says her organization is working harder than ever to reach out to its clients and bridge the gaps COVID-19 has created.
“Some of our clients don’t have those digital literacy skills, or only have one computer for the whole family to use,” Watts says. “Even if you have a computer, there’s no guarantee you can connect because Internet service isn’t great in many parts of Nova Scotia. So, we offer computer labs and are looking at options to purchase and loan equipment, and also train clients in their use.”
That can be tricky too. Watts says there are often cases in which new immigrants aren’t even literate in their own language, let alone in English or digital technology.
“We’re actually doing more work to replace the organic communications that used to take place. We can hold our own right now, but person-to-person communications need to be maintained or those clients won’t progress in their language skills until we can get back to business as usual.” Online delivery is something ISANS is extremely familiar with since it has been doing it for more than a decade. Many of its programs are able to continue as usual during this period, while others shifted online rapidly due to existing expertise. However, not everything can go online. “In some cases we’ve gone back to what’s old is new again. We’re developing plans for clients and actually mailing them out,” Watts says.
ISANS is also reaching out to the broader business community to acquire information the immigrant community needs to thrive during this pandemic. For example, it’s one of the organizations that joined the Chamber’s coalition initiative.
“The Nova Scotia Business Labour Economic Coalition is a great way to hear the questions others are asking and to collect the information our clients need,” Watts says. “All the information being shared regarding employers and businesses in turn let’s us inform our clients where job opportunities lie and helps immigrant businesses access the help they need.”
Ultimately, though, virtual alternatives aren’t going to work for everyone. In those situations, both Sullivan and Jefferson say there’s nothing wrong with a good, old fashioned phone call.
“I believe people should still be able to do that,” Jefferson says. “I still accept phone calls,” Sullivan says. “I’m always happy to have a coffee.”