The pandemic didn’t end physical networking, but AI might


Face-to-face meetings and our ability to meet and network temporarily stopped when the global coronavirus pandemic struck, but as the world tries to return to a new normal artificial intelligence is reducing the need for us to ever meet up again.

Mark Pollard, Author, Founder and CEO of strategy training company, Sweathead, shares his view of why the evolution of AI systems and platforms should not mean we never meet in real life again…

Mark-Pollard, Sweathead

In work-from-home culture, there’s no such thing as a water cooler conversation. Spontaneous and serendipitous meetings are as likely as bumping into your doppelgänger, and there’s just a 1 in 1,000,000,000,000 chance of that.

In the aftershock of the pandemic, it’s not just everyday office culture that’s fading out, but face-to-face networking and events are also on the decline. There is less work travel and fewer IRL conferences too.

There’s no doubt that hybrid and at-home working models have multiple benefits, offering Pantheon-size efficiencies across the board. The pandemic proved this.

In fact, the entire model values efficiency, from bringing people together from across the globe via a screen, to having time to hang your washing out between tasks.

And now we’re in the throes of the largest efficiency transformation of them all: artificial intelligence.

But we know that all this efficiency comes with huge downsides. As we disappear behind our screens in all areas of life, we’re getting increasingly lonelier.

According to surveys by Gallup and the Survey Center on American Life reported in Euronews, the share of American people who said they have no close friends at all went up from 3% in 1990 to 12% in 2021.

Isolated world: People feel more alone than before.

As online began to overtake IRL, it was only natural that training and networking would follow suit. But if the pandemic has meant that physical events are more sparsely attended, or don’t happen at all, will AI kill it forever?

Of course, it’s hardly surprising, when we all realised we could meet and attend training and events online. Again, it’s cost and time efficient, but we are missing out in important ways.

There’s so much to be gained from in person interactions. It fosters the best creative ideas, and of course it can help to generate new business. It’s crucial that time is made for IRL experiences.

Now, AI is speeding up the transition with tools that can help anyone to  network and build connections. There are AI-powered apps that can find out when your email recipient is most active and most likely to reply on social networks and others that will scour LinkedIn for people you should be networking with.

And there are tools that can respond to Tweets, and DM outbound sales messages too.

So as AI platforms and software evolve and make the need for physical networking less vital, how can the creative industry ensure IRL events don’t die out altogether?

This is most essential for younger workers. Many entered the workforce during the pandemic years. By not meeting colleagues face to face regularly, and for some, rarely stepping into the physical office, they must think that one workplace is just the same as the other. You can’t really gauge an office culture via a screen.

So why is IRL training and networking so important for the industry:

The energy of others

Have you ever found yourself affected by strangers at the gym, either all working harder, or giving up together? Or that the energy is different after the music changes in a cafe you’re working at?

Humans are wired to respond to other people’s energies. We’re like cicadas. We think we’re individuals but we move together more than we think. It’s really only possible to feel this in person.

Peak experience 

Offsites work, and this is partly because they can offer groups a “peak experience”. There is plenty of research that shows coming together and creating what researchers would refer to as a “peak experience” – moments of joy and elation – is best experienced in person to galvanise and energise a group.

meeting-Image by Werner Heiber from Pixabay
Eye contact: People get so much more out of being together, arguably moreso after the pandemic.

Value of human contact

When we define value, we rarely consider the value of human contact. Hosting company training IRL is only partly about learning. It’s also about showing people they matter and giving them a space to meet, connect and share ideas, and even make friends.

Personal presence 

For someone wanting to learn, they need to believe the training is personally significant to them. It needs to connect with their own sense of personal purpose.

Research into teaching suggests that presence is one of the top elements that makes education effective, and true presence is difficult to deliver online.

Proximity creates opportunity

The ‘proximity principle’ suggests that individuals form interpersonal relations with those who are close by.

But there’s also research that suggests that one of the main reasons upward mobility is difficult in the USA is because poorer people are blocked off together in many cities.

It’s not about high production, but high value

High quality production matters less than some might think. If someone’s personal purpose aligns with the training, and if the teacher has presence, then the production could be raw and work better than a polished production.

opportunity-Image by Micha from Pixabay
Opportunity knocks: Being together creates more upside for all, even if its an unpolished event.

The death of reading body language 

Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only. It’s so hard to read the inclination of someone’s voice or even their facial expressions alone.

To really understand, and be able to read people effectively, you need to come together in the flesh. Body language is the unspoken language of communication. You can learn a lot just from reading people in the room.

Practising together

Most professionals don’t practise what they do outside of work, whether it’s pitching to a client or coming up with new ideas. So bringing people together for training is a great space to let them practise together. Deliberate practice has been shown to help people improve at a faster rate.

We can’t stop technology revolutionising how we communicate, it’s only going to speed up. But we can make sure we make time to connect, learn and network face-to-face. It’s an essential part of being human after all.