OPINION – Nothing can replace coffee and chit chat when it comes to maintaining relationships

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By Scott Webb, UKSE area manager for Scotland

AFTER living with lockdown measures for more than half a year now, most of us have got over the novelty of conducting meetings by conference call. Few now joke about what they’re really wearing on their bottom half or pretend to be on mute for a laugh.

While it’s great that technology has enabled a semblance of business continuity, for me, working remotely has highlighted just how important it is to maintain personal relationships.

Founded more than 40 years ago to support businesses in steel communities with investments, loans and premises, UKSE has long recognised the importance of face to face interaction.

When meeting a business for the first time so much depends on body language and tone of voice, with research suggesting that only seven per cent of communication is verbal.

However, I simply hadn’t appreciated how much we also learn about others during small talk. Chit chat to fill in the gaps can reveal a lot about the health of a business, compared with crunching numbers on a spreadsheet or viewing a graph.

Early in lockdown we put in place a series of one-to-one calls with our client companies to discuss how we could support their businesses. Early engagement enabled us to implement a variety of initiatives to help their cash flows such as capital holidays on repayments, ensuring businesses had the funds they needed to continue to trade effectively.

From then on, we continued to check in monthly and regular contact soon identified which businesses were coping and which were more challenged by the restrictions. More often than not we simply lent an ear to management teams who took comfort in being able to talk through their plans – proving, once again, the value of sustaining good relationships.

Throughout the course of these conversations, I’ve been seriously impressed by the way that SMEs have adapted to ensure their businesses are viable. COVID-19 is new for everyone. No-one has experience in how best to navigate the pandemic and it is to their credit that businesses have reacted so quickly, with many diversifying to protect their income streams, and using lockdown to drive efficiencies that will help them to be more financially robust. This resilience will stand SMEs in good stead as the uncertainty continues into 2021.

As we look ahead to the new normal, we need to strike a balance between the new ways of working and the old.

Despite what some sections of the media may tell us, there are some positives emerging from the challenges posed by COVID. A key advantage of virtual meetings is that there is no travel time. Spending hours in a car is not only inefficient it is also environmentally unsound, and the higher air quality delivered by reduced air travel tells its own story.

But looking at a screen isn’t always suitable. At UKSE, we place a huge amount of importance on the quality of the people in a business when we are making investments, and it is not easy to make such decisions remotely.

When it comes to meetings, I still prefer to sit at a table over a cup of coffee and indulge in a bit of shameless banter. That said, I’m encouraged by the resilience and ingenuity displayed by our SMEs and indeed my colleagues at UKSE.

Let’s hope the new normal is an opportunity to make the best of both the virtual and real worlds.

 

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