One of these days, after being homebound for months, I had to go out and meet Sanjay, a business contact. Some grave matters had to be discussed, trust building had to happen and most urgently some documents needed to be signed in person. We couldn’t have done these digitally.
What felt like after ages, I changed into some smart business casuals from the worn out faded tee , donned a trendy mask , grabbed my bottle of hand sanitiser and armed with the important documents, I stepped out into the beautiful bright sunlit day. Counting the blessings of the natural sanitiser, sunlight, I walked towards my clients office just two blocks away.
At the doorstep, a newly installed foot operated sanitizer dispenser greeted me. Rubbing the elixir thoroughly into my palms, I was happy and somewhat relieved that my host was taking safety and precaution seriously.
As I stepped into my host’s cabin, our hands rose, towards a habitual handshake, and then stopped midway replaced with a loud voiced hello, accompanied with an enthusiastic smile which was lost under the 3 layer face mask. I tried searching Sanjay’s eyes for signs of a pleasant smile but couldn’t make out much under his thick glasses. I wondered whether my enthusiasm also fell flat behind the layers. Not a great start to an important meeting.
The awkwardness hung around while we tried to make ourselves comfortable with small talk about the big bad pandemic. Desperate to pick up expressions, as I stared at the bits of his face visible around the mask and eye glasses, I must confess, I felt like a creep.I quickly averted my gaze to his twiddling hands. No doubt, the discomfort was mutual. It’s surprising how much of our life-space the coronavirus and its effects is occupying.
As we moved on to business, the biggest problem I faced was the dilemma of the face mask. To keep it on or to remove it while we talked. When two people are separated only by an office desk 3 feet wide, how does one ensure appropriate distancing? On the other hand with the mask on , I was hardly able to breathe comfortably, let alone talk sense. I was also troubled by the thought that I could be infecting the chair I was sitting on or perhaps taking the infection left there by the previous client. Hopefully they had sanitised the chair and they will repeat the process once I leave. The safest would have been to carry my own sanitised wipes and do the deed, but wouldn’t that be rude?
Suddenly I felt an itch on my nose, or was it twitching to sneeze? The mere thought of sneezing into my mask mortified me. I was very thirsty by now but obviously I couldn’t have expected a glass of water. Lamentably I realised I should have carried my own bottle. I returned from that meeting feeling totally inadequate with my business etiquette skills.
This incident makes me wonder how can we make meetings work in the absence of ice breakers, non verbal cues, warm handshakes and hot coffees? Times have changed and while a lot of the hard skills are being reviewed for redundancy, should we also rehash some of the soft skills?