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Social distancing: just one more step

March 11, 2020

I heard from a colleague today that her daughter has been ‘socially distanced’ from her school. No, not a punishment – just a sudden new experience now impacting families around the world.

As schools and workplaces close, and travel is dramatically curtailed, ‘social distancing’ is rapidly impacting human interactions at every level. Coronavirus is challenging the norms of activity and communication.

Accelerating a trend

Yet while extreme, the current crisis is in many ways simply accelerating a trend and may prove a tipping point in the way society operates. As IACCM will reveal in an imminent webinar, some 70% of business-to-business negotiation was already virtual in form even before the on-set of the virus. I’m sure right now it must be 90%+. And already, in 2019, working from home was the norm for more than 35% of IACCM members, at least some of the time.

Our capacity to maintain connections via technology is very evident as we observe the ability of universities and schools to shift rapidly to on-line teaching and as we see video communication from stranded cruise ship passengers. So we are in many ways equipped for this change, except that it’s all rather unstructured. Our processes were not  designed on the assumption that everything is digital and we haven’t been trained to operate with full efficiency in a ‘socially distanced’ world.

Email: a blessing and a curse

To take a simple example, email is used extensively for business communication, including negotiation. While in some ways this represents tremendous efficiency, it actually often leads to barriers and misunderstanding. Unlike a physical meeting, we cannot observe body language or easily test for intent. Yet it isn’t in fact that we can’t do these things – it is that we haven’t been trained to do so (though IACCM is also rapidly addressing that particular gap as well).

A new normal

With the heightened pressure to develop sustainable working practices, plus the immediate need for businesses to cut costs, accelerated social distancing may prove to be the new normal. We need to recognize and adapt to a fast-changing model in human interaction.

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