As you prepare for in-person sales meetings, networking events, and other business interactions, you might feel a little anxious. You’ve spent months quarantining and social distancing. After communicating through Zoom for so long, with funny backgrounds and interrupting pets lightening the mood, it might not seem “normal” to be back in a crowded room or formal meeting.

In an effort to make your transition easier, I reached out to entrepreneurs and business leaders to learn how they’re making the adjustment. Here’s their advice:

1. Respect other people’s comfort levels.

Everyone will respond differently to in-person events. Some of your team members will be excited to shake hands, hug friends, and be in the same space for the first time in forever. Others may want to maintain their distance considering new virus variants. Respecting everyone’s individual choice is the key to successful relationship-building.

You should also take precautions before, during, and after in-person interactions. Make sure to wash your hands frequently and follow current health guidelines. If you’re planning to host an event, monitor attendees for symptoms, provide handwashing and sanitizing stations, and encourage anyone to attend virtually if they’re symptomatic.

Duane Spires, CEO of the consulting firm Success Team Coaching, has successfully hosted several in-person events for 100 to 300 people since last year. “As the world reopens, there is a much-needed opportunity for people to experience the exciting power of in-person relationship-building again,” Spires says. “Following this advice will give you the confidence to host incredible meetings and events, and you will see your business and life go to the next level!”

2. Be intentional about relationship building.

In a Harvard Business Review Analytic Services survey, 95% of respondents said face-to-face meetings were critical to building and maintaining long-term relationships. As you form new relationships and rekindle existing ones, it’s important to be intentional.

Everyone knows how to be polite, but it’s hard to be fully present when you feel like your time should be spent elsewhere. If you want to build worthwhile relationships, you need to give others the time and attention they deserve. Nick McLean, founder of the Midwestern private equity firm Four Pillars Investors, knows that relationship-building is the key to business success.

“My first job out of school was in consulting,” he says. “Week after week, the client would pay all of the project team’s travel expenses to work face-to-face with the client. That made an impression on me. Fast-forward to today: Some would say our business is about forming partnerships. We can do our jobs without in-person relationship-building, but we feel as though that is taking the easy way out. Since some of our competitors will not make an effort to meet in person, it allows us to differentiate ourselves.”

3. Be genuine and considerate.

Bert Cattoor, founder and CEO of mobile mapping and machine learning company Geckomatics, believes that what you get out of relationships equals what you put in. “In post-pandemic times, taking the time to meet physically is generous. Make sure you pay attention to what is important for the person you are meeting, and if you can give value that builds a network where value will sooner or later find you in return. Give advice, open up your network to introduce interesting people, and take time to listen.”

When deciding where (or how) to meet, weigh your options: Are you meeting with an important customer? Take time to meet them face-to-face so that they see how important the relationship is to you. Are you scheduling a recurring meeting with your teammates? It’s OK to be flexible, but don’t forget how much impact in-person interactions have. And no matter whether you meet online or in-person, make sure you’re considering the needs of the other person.

4. Aim to have fun.

Jeanine Smith, CEO of the media company Sorority Records, says the pandemic taught her to appreciate the basic freedoms she took for granted before quarantine. As a result, she’s focused on fun as the world finally moves into the post-pandemic era. Her recommendation? Don’t make the conversation all about you if you want to keep things light and make a good impression.

“Make sure you are clear that everyone is going through something so no one is totally focused on you,” she says. “The best thing you can do is relax and be cool when you meet someone. No one wants your stress when they have their own.”

To rebuild old relationships and form new ones, make sure you focus on giving. When you help other people, you create the foundation for a relationship that can last a lifetime. Put people at ease with your presence, and always give before you try to ask for anything.

5. Be creative and get outside your comfort zone.

Patrick Casey, financial operations manager of the garden building supplier Arqlite, is excited to build relationships again the old-fashioned way. “This is an excellent opportunity to find common ground with people and build authentic connections,” Casey says. “It can’t be stated enough that the world we are re-entering has been on hold for over a year, and some parts of the world are dealing with entirely different circumstances—don’t take it for granted!”

In-person interactions evolve organically, build trust, and help you get to know people quicker. A curious customer who walks in for the first time can get an impromptu facility tour and leave with an impression of your company’s professionalism and the feeling that they received special treatment. Those powerful moments can’t happen via screen sharing.

6. Prioritize empathy and flexibility.

“This past year has reinforced the importance of having empathy for everyone,” says Tom Hickman, director of business development at the digital transformation company Chainyard. “Through empathy, one is able to build solid relationships—both personal and for business. Our customers were suffering in their part of the world, and by showing that we genuinely cared about them and their families, we were able to build an even deeper bond with them. Regardless of where we were located, we all suffered in some way. The pandemic revealed a lot of who we are and what is most important in our lives.”

Hickman believes there’s an easy way to apply those same lessons to a world where in-person interactions are returning: by listening. Listen to your employees and their wishes for the future of work at your company. Listen to your customers and hear what they need most from your organization. When you listen, you learn, and you can apply these insights and challenge traditional ways of doing business.

Don’t expect an overnight transformation, however. Change takes time, and everyone involved will need to be patient with ongoing business evolutions. With this in mind, Hickman recommends overcommunicating. When everyone is on the same page, progress is more obvious—even when it’s occurring at a modest pace.

The business world has transformed over the past 18 months. While some things will never be the same, the return of in-person interactions is an exciting prospect. To start rebuilding relationships, aim to follow the advice of these business leaders.

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Roland Millaner

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