By Tony Samson

EVEN a simple thing such as having a haircut after three months of hirsute abandon can be like checking an itinerary for Sagada. There are many variables to consider. When will the barber shops open? Those in the malls may wait for the partial opening of the whole complex. What about social distancing? How many chairs are available? Can you just walk in as before? Is an appointment necessary so there’s no waiting around (and spreading the virus) for the next available barber? Okay, you can skip the hot towel and the perfunctory patting down of the shoulders and neck and the scalp clawing to wake up nerve endings in a version of the complimentary massage.

The uncertainty even of the end date of the quarantine and the form it will take when it’s lifted in full is still hanging. Will there be checkpoints, temperature checks, and swabs (open your nostrils please), how much time does one allocate for the commute or getting from one point to another?

In the new normal, which many see as already here as the “now normal,” is it still possible to make plans? Is the usual structure of planning with its objective, key result areas, resources needed, and a timeline with accountabilities assigned… a thing of the past? Even previously routine plans and agreements get complicated.

Making appointments is an example. A run-of-the-mill lunch date poses problems, even for willing, even eager, participants. The choice of venue takes into account whether dine-in options are already available and what the seating arrangement will look like — can paired diners sit at one table together, facing each other or side by side? When can you take off the face mask? Only when biting into the burger? Where are we going for dessert?

Even scheduling business meetings, yes virtual ones, involves not just availability of a common time but also reliability of gadgets and transmission. (Turn off your video so we can hear you more clearly.) Since these meetings are for now mostly home based, the quality of the home space (kitchen or garage) figures into the equation. What about ambient noises? Let’s meet after the dog gets its snack. Otherwise, she can be a bitch… pardon the French.

Longer term plans like a two-week stay with relatives abroad or visiting an archaeological site are simply put off indefinitely. Travel restrictions here and the new normal on the other end need to be figured out. Too complicated. Let’s wait for the vaccine.

The chief feature of the new normal is social distancing. Try not to meet people face to face. This mantra mandates the use of technology to communicate without being in the same place at the same time or needing to be within smelling distance of each other. This approach is characterized as “low touch” (which must be differentiated from “touch low”). Physical proximity is not encouraged. An unintended benefit here is the lower incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Even the “double entendre” loses its bite in a chat group virtual meeting. What’s that you’re wearing, Dear?

With office workers spread out geographically in their homes, the informal and unplanned (or uncalendered) chance meeting for coffee to discuss the latest idea on direct selling is no longer possible. Aren’t great ideas hatched without an agenda around the water cooler in the snack room — yeah, why don’t you work out the numbers on that and let’s meet again over Zoom?

The new normal is not just about technology and a willingness to adapt to mobile apps, even for purchases and bill payments. The shift is a cultural one. The low-touch paradigm is associated with robots and artificial intelligence. It is combined with high tech. The algorithm knows your name and what kind of books you buy. The low touch/high tech is a butler that does not smirk when you book a room. It remembers your birthday but not how you plan to celebrate it.

Ours is a high-touch culture. We invent occasions and excuses to meet and have a drink or lunch. We need silences and jokes with each other to discuss lapsed franchises, the fate of second-hand cars, and who’s seeing whom. What’s the use of gossip when you can’t share it in a virtual meet? (Do we have a quorum, madame secretary?)

Can we still make plans for small talk?


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda