Nadine Touma is an independent consultant in Insights, Strategy and Innovation based in Dubai. She shared with me her optimism, and pessimism, about the impact the pandemic is having upon society and relationships.
‘The purpose of the workspace has to be completely reinvented to foster trust, collaboration and empathy’
I’ve always done my best work outside of the office. So for me, we’ve seen incredible progress since the start of the pandemic. It would have taken us 10 to 15 years to achieve flexible working without it.
However, I don’t think we have reached the right balance yet. On the one hand, we should be able to work the way we want, in the time we’re more productive, at the place we find inspiration, but, on the other, we also need time in the office, with the whole team together.
We cannot do everything online, from home. We need real-life face to face interactions to build trust, collaboration and empathy. I think it is very difficult for companies to build team spirit, vision and common values if people don’t know or trust each other.
Particularly here in the Middle East, where you can’t dive into a meeting without spending the all-important 10 minutes talking about your respective families, this kind of interactivity is critical. Knowing someone personally can make or break a business relationship.
Some companies in Dubai are now offering employees a ‘menu’, where you can choose to be full time in the office, through to only two days a month – and all the variations in between.
What I see is a proliferation of ‘hot spots’, plug in and plug out desks – consulting style. Whereas, what is actually needed, on the contrary, is spacious, comfortable and creative team space to encourage conversations and collaborative ideas.
‘In store, breadth and depth of assortment has become obsolete, the real focus will have to become experience and service’
I see exactly the same challenge in retail, as the battle between brick and mortar versus e-commerce keeps intensifying because of the pandemic.
A couple of years ago, one of the critical elements for a store’s success was the assortment it offered, its breadth and depth, and the way it was edited. Today, it is almost irrelevant, as even the biggest hyper-stores look ridiculous compared to what you can find online.
Before the pandemic, the notions of ‘experience’ and ‘service’ were always much talked about – yet remained nice words and theoretical concepts for a lot of brands. Today it is the only way to differentiate. Not only against local competition but, most importantly, against the monster that is e-commerce.
What will convince me to move off my sofa to buy a dress? Perhaps the presence of a stylist. Why would I bother to drive to buy mascara – unless I can get a makeover.
Stores will need to provide a lot more than just products. Think of a theme park – somewhere that really makes you want to go there and want to stay. A theme park is much more than the sum of its rides. It is a universe on its own, something that I cannot recreate in front of my computer. Similarly, in store, you will want to live and experience things – otherwise it doesn’t make sense to go anymore.
And to ‘live’ things you need people. Staff who are experts and can answer the questions that a chatbot cannot. People who have empathy, who can read me, know what I want and offer me solutions – better than algorithms ever can.
‘I don’t see any decrease in consumerism overall’
The first day after the lockdown ended, Hermès registered their higher sales ever in China. I find this quite puzzling – to think that after being cut off for so long from the people you love, your friends and family, the first thing you would want to do when you’re ‘let out’ is to buy a bag.
And yet China was not an isolated incident. In the Gulf, some luxury brands have done remarkably well during the past two years because they’ve had a captive audience, people who were no longer travelling to Paris or Milan and ended up shopping locally. Brands have discovered new local clients, as weird as that may sound.
Honestly, I would like to tell you that I’m seeing more conscious spending. And yes, there is some – but from where I sit, there has been no decrease in consumerism overall. Far from it. And it has only been made easier with e-commerce.
‘The Earth stood still for a moment – then started spinning again’
When we were confined in our homes it felt like the world stopped spinning. It was an incredible moment where the Earth stood still and fell silent. It felt like we were all sent to our rooms by some greater consciousness to reflect about who we are and what we are doing with our lives.
I clearly remember those beautiful images of wild animals coming into our cities. And I thought ‘wow’, we needed something like this to shake us up – wake us up as a society.
But then, very quickly, people went back to business. Perhaps not ‘business as usual’, as our way of working and interacting with each other has changed, but we went back nonetheless. I know I sound very pessimistic right now, but to me, we missed an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and redefine our values.
‘Fear is the path to the dark side ( Master Yoda)’
I am a big Star Wars fan and I cannot miss an opportunity to quote Master Yoda whenever it’s relevant. And given our current context – relevant it is!
‘Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering’.
If the pandemic has revealed one thing about our society it is how fear predominates. Fear of illness, fear of death, fear for our family, fear for our jobs. But most importantly, fear of each other. We’re now afraid of human contact, and yet it is only through connecting, physically, emotionally and mentally, that we develop our humanity, our empathy, our tolerance.
I hold the media largely responsible for the paranoia that has been escalating over the past two years. Bombarding people with what I call the ‘countdown of doom’. Figures announced every single day, over and over, with no analysis whatsoever, no perspective, no benchmark, nothing.
And people were watching repeatedly, freaking out, not trusting their neighbours, their nephew or the delivery guy. This fear is dangerous and contagious, pardon the pun – it fosters violence, intolerance and extremism. The ‘conversations’, for lack of a better word, on social media between pro and anti-vaccine supporters are symptomatic of what that fear has generated.
I worry in particular for the younger generation. Not only did they miss out on what makes youth fun – having to stare at a screen all day long. But also, they were demonised as ‘the reason why Covid is spreading’. Burdened with the impossible guilt of potentially killing their grandmother.
I worry for them, because they are a generation that lives, breathes, plays and dates online. They were already disconnected, struggling to behave IRL (in real life). The pandemic has accentuated this further. We are seeing a new generation being denied proper human connection. What becomes of our humanity then?
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