Will Virtual Events Ever Replace Face-to-Face Events?

By: G. Ray Gompf, CD

Back in 1992, my business partner, at the time, and I had just bought our very first modem: a 300 baud modem, where the 300 baud was sending a “byte” per second of information. Now with 5G, there’s Gigabytes per second. This modem was hooked to a telephone line that had to “shake hands” with another dialed telephone and then you could hook up the two computers at different locations by putting the receivers of the telephone onto a device connecting the computers. Some of you may be scratching your heads but all of this is true.

My partner and I looked at each other and declared the office tower was dead. We envisaged employees could work remotely and virtually from anywhere in the world and we set out to figure out how to do that on a massive scale. Of course, at 300 baud, to do eight hours of work, may have taken the next sixteen to forward that work to the remote computer.

It was a very slow process. Loading pictures was very time consuming and photographs for transmission were of very low resolution. Forget about loading a few seconds of video. Within a few years, we’d advanced from 300 baud to high-speed cable which made more “through-put” to a point where connections were almost instant and we started to be able to share much more information at fairly significant speeds, even high-resolution photography.

Our current 5G networks now is like comparing the speed of light where 300 baud was the speed of sound. Within the next few years, transmission may be at the speed of thought.

One of the things we could see back then was the online virtual mall. It took nearly thirty years for sites like shopify.com to figure it out and become the high earner it is by allowing customers to shop the various sellers at their leisure to find sources to fulfill their needs and take a small slice.

The above led to truly having the ability to declare the office building dead. There is virtually nowhere in the world where we can’t communicate in real time and provide real time live streamed video, making face-to-face interaction available without being face-to-face.

Truckers for example can and do communicate with families not only by voice, but visual contact simultaneously. While hugging family remotely isn’t possible — yet — it does provide a near normal communicative experience.

Many organizations, forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, evolved quickly into online meetings and conferences without the physical bodies being in a small space. They can and do have such meeting with the participants anywhere in the world and hold full scale meetings remotely.

The Parliament of Canada has been meeting for the past two years using online connectivity where each attending Member of Parliament can participate in debates from their homes. Of course, one MP forgot that other MPs could see him and engaged in private activity in public format. These kinds of mistakes are happening in situations other than politicians acting inappropriately.

The question is when the pandemic is under control and people feel safe to resume face-to-face interactions, as a regular daily occurrence, will they? The answer is probably not. Some sort of hybrid office interaction will become the norm.

The City of Ottawa is now discussing having many of those office towers that abound where civil servants have worked for decades being converted to apartments where instead of people working only, they could live and work where they live yet still have people downtown to have a consistent active core. There is a complete rethink of how office workers can interact and perform their responsibilities while in a connected place of their choice.

This new kind of planning should have been on the corporate and government radar decades ago instead of developing a plan out of forced necessity.

Now, with the ability to effectively work remotely, to interact with people without seeing them face-to-face, is a completely foreign way to interact with people. For the entire evolution of man, we’ve been a touchy-feely animal. The downside of this new way of interacting is we may lose eons of evolutionary social skills and this may happen quickly. Within a generation or so, those social skills may be completely lost. That’s a tremendously short period of time to readjust, evolve if you will, to new realities.

Seeing other humans and interacting with them on a computer screen is only a minor part of the human experience. Humans, when communicating in close proximity, use a myriad of nonverbal skills to enhance the interaction.

For our industry, events like trade shows, are as much social as informative. The informative element can be accomplished remotely but it’s that social interaction being stifled unless done live. For the past two years, we’ve not been able to interact with our friends; there’s been no handshakes or few opportunities to hoist a pint with colleagues and competitors.

Certainly, we’ve been able to “stay-in-touchless-touch” but it’s those in person interactions that’s been impacted to the detriment of the tactile response.

Because of the rules set for the pandemic, businesses have had to modify the ways they provided goods and services. Governments also had to regroup to provide the services to the public an absolute necessity. Now that those modifications have proven successful, for the most part, when normality returns, these new practices will become part and parcel of everyday life.

The world is full of Nervous Nellies, who will demand they be served while they wrap themselves inside their individual bubbles. Others will demand service in more traditional ways, even shaking hands to close the deal or even as a greeting. The fact is that whatever the position of the end user, providers of goods and services will deliver those services at the user’s risk assessment level.

The issue will remain to not be judgmental whether the end user must bubble wrap, or be personable, free of restrictions be it imposed restriction or personal restriction. While mankind is sorting out this new reality, each end of the fear spectrum believing their way is the only way, must learn to suppress their personal point of view and live with each other protecting themselves as they see fit without judgement.

To answer the question posed by the title of this piece, “Will virtual events ever replace face-to-face events?” that answer would be no, but not entirely. The face-to-face events are necessary and will remain necessary for a large segment of society, at least for the foreseeable future, but must accommodate those susceptible to the fear, the online equivalent must become as normal as breathing — for them.

The ability to communicate, do commerce, obtain goods and services we need, up to and including our groceries, actually working online, hold major events we can attend without physical presence is all not just feasible, but easy. That genie now out of the bottle will never return. There will also be a requirement for all those tasks to be done physically.  The need for direct human interaction isn’t going to change in the immediate future.

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