The COVID-19 pandemic may be making fewer headlines, but the world it shaped is still with us. Remote work is here to stay, supply chains have yet to recover, and the rebound of air travel has led to chaos, showing that getting over the impacts may take longer than many hoped.
In this post-pandemic “new normal”, the way business relations of all kinds are conducted has changed in fundamental ways. Team meetings are as likely to take place online as at the office, while those working from home need to contend with distracting kids and pets.
Meanwhile, the wine-and-dine approach to some high level meetings has been replaced by the colder glare of a camera light as you sit at your home office – and if there’s a knock, you might want to turn it off to avoid exposing the colour of your boxers to the people you want to do business with.
What is certain is that the changes have been many and significant, and navigating through them all has been a challenge for investors, owners, managers, and employees alike.
Throughout all this, those with a highly developed intuition of proper etiquette have been at an advantage, their training in the fundamentals of good conduct putting them in good stead to adapt to new situations while maintaining composure.
“The basics of etiquette are largely the same,” says Jo Caruana, a business etiquette consultant accredited by the European School for Etiquette and Protocol in Brussels who offers her services through Finesse Consulta, part of Finesse Group (of which she is CEO), which helps businesses to finesse every aspect of their customer journey.
Speaking to BusinessNow.mt, she says that the need to make a good first impression, to make the other person feel valued, to listen, respond in a timely and effective manner, and use good manners, have not changed.
“But one of the challenges,” she continues, “is that a lot of that happened more naturally when body language was part of the mix. Without it, you’re relying more on your voice, face (if on video), and written communication skills – so you have to do more with less.”
The key, she argues, is to be aware of best practices and have self awareness.
“Regardless of how you communicate, whether that is in person or online, self awareness is one of the most valuable skills you can have,” she says.
Elaine Fenech, a certified social etiquette consultant and tutor licensed and accredited by the International Etiquette and Protocol Academy of London, who also specialised in business etiquette and protocol, adds that the most important thing is to treat everyone with dignity.
“In business etiquette we place a lot of emphasis on empathy, respect, and honesty, and making others feel great,” she says.
Asked how the growing prevalence of remote work has affected business meeting etiquette, Ms Fenech says that perhaps the most noticeable thing is that people are more punctual: “They do not have to travel, so there is very little excuse for being late.”
Working from home, however, also means that work, literally, is in your home, leading to a blending of professional and personal life that is made worse by the perception (and in some cases, expectation), that people are always on call.
“Our customers are now in our living rooms, our kitchens, and our gardens. We are perceived as always available and an issue that could be solved over a simple two-minute phone call ends up in a 30-minute online meeting. Meetings are organised even to discuss petty matters,” says Ms Fenech.
The solution, she says, is to make an effort to respect time – your own and others’: “It is important for a company to have a few basic rules and to help employees set boundaries. Too many online meetings can be disruptive and may affect productivity.”
Ms Caruana also highlights formality and communication standards are other casualties of the work-from-home (WFH) transition.
“When you’re sat there in your Zoom outfit (smart up top; casual below) and working from your sofa with a cat on your lap, it’s easy to forget you are in a work environment, and standards can slip,” she says, although she quickly adds that WFH has many other advantages, from greater efficiency and by forcing an opening up to a global audience and team.
To make the most of the opportunities and mitigate the downside, she says that “nothing should be left to chance”.
“Companies should create WFH communications policies and ensure their teams have understood the standards expected of them, regardless of where they are working. The biggest mistake made here is assuming team members know what’s expected of them (whether they’re at home or in the office), and that’s why a good customer communication document is vital for growing businesses.”
Ms Fenech agrees, pointing to the online gaming world as a good example businesses should learn from.
“Train your employees to present themselves well in front of a camera, to use the right language (spoken and written) when communicating with their audience, and to project the right tone of voice,” she says. “Transacting online leads to permanent record of language so we should really push to project the right image.”
“Your business may be online, but it’s still a business,” continues Ms Caruana. “While I favour a casual work environment for my own team, I am resolute on the importance of professionalism with clients – and that should really be standard regardless of what type of business you run.
“Again, assuming that team members know the rules is the first mistake businesses make. As a business leader, you have to set your standards and then communicate them clearly so everyone is on the same page. Without that, everyone can just make things up as they go along, and that’s when standards slip.”
However, everyone should also probably give themselves a pat on the back for the way the changes forced by the pandemic have been handled, adds Ms Fenech. “At the start of the pandemic, we saw colleagues in home wear. Today, we are finding ourselves setting a few basic standards for appropriate work attire. I believe we are adapting very well, giving business etiquette a new dimension.”
In an increasingly cross-border world where competition is of a global nature, good business etiquette perpetuates good business relationships, so it tends to lead to more opportunities and increase success, concludes Ms Caruana, while Ms Fenech finally notes that cultural diversity and respecting the way other countries do business can make or break a deal – making etiquette crucial to every business that has its eyes set on growth.
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