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updated: 10/5/2020 6:37 AM

The business lunch will eventually be back -- because Zoom can't replace everything

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  • The fabled three-martini affair of the "Mad Men" era might be long gone, but the business lunch is still a staple for many professionals. The purposes are many: wooing a client, perhaps, or interviewing a potential recruit, getting to know a mentee, bonding with a boss.

    The fabled three-martini affair of the "Mad Men" era might be long gone, but the business lunch is still a staple for many professionals. The purposes are many: wooing a client, perhaps, or interviewing a potential recruit, getting to know a mentee, bonding with a boss.
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In the Before Times, you could usually find Brian Donahue lunching at one of the power-dining spots around the White House and K Street.

Meeting with current or prospective clients of his D.C.-based media and public affairs firm was a crucial part of his job.

"Washington is a relationship town," Donahue says. "And those relationships are forged and strengthened over the opportunity to share meals and toast drinks."

The coronavirus pandemic ended that, of course, emptying offices in downtowns from Washington to San Francisco. Restaurants catering to the loafers-and-heels set -- and the corporate credit cards they wielded -- now look like ghost towns.

The business lunch will one day make a return, business professors, networking experts and professionals agree. But when the ritual resumes, they predict, it might be less frequent simply because workers will spend less time in their offices.

For white-collar workers, so much of work life in the past six months has gone virtual. We Zoom and Slack our way through interactions that used to happen in conference rooms and in cubicle huddles. But there is no online substitution for the essential function of the business lunch, which is to put humans in face-to-face contact in a relaxed, neutral setting.

Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, says the pandemic will likely teach organizations that plenty can be done remotely. But not everything.

"There are some kinds of tasks -- projects and periods of time where in-person collaboration is optimal -- and organizations are going to be much more deliberate about these," she says. "I'd put business lunches in that category. People will reserve a special place for that."

The fabled three-martini affair of the "Mad Men" era might be long gone, and the "sad desk lunch" is a reality for many people. And in some areas, power lunches aren't really a thing, anyway: Silicon Valley tech workers might dine with colleagues at on-campus eateries, but they're less likely to venture out in traffic midday.

But the business lunch is still a staple for many professionals. The purposes are many: wooing a client, perhaps, or interviewing a potential recruit, getting to know a mentee, bonding with a boss.

Mauro Guillén, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and the author of "2030: How Today's Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything," says such interactions serve businesses well, in part by feeding a need that many shut-in workers are feeling particularly sharply these days.

"People are craving those personal relationships and interactions, because we are humans," he says. "We have five senses, and Zoom only allows us to use two."

Business lunches aren't just good for the soul, though. They can also be good for ... business.

"Breaking bread together breaks down barriers," says Susan RoAne, the author of books on networking including "Secrets of Savvy Networking" and "How to Work a Room." "When someone's in front of you, you can read them better. If someone's telling you about a good deal and their face doesn't match their eyes, you can intuit that better than on Zoom."

Lunches allow people to communicate more clearly than they might be able to over the phone or a video. "They're for when everything has to be normal -- when you're having sensitive conversations, when you're acquiring an organization, significant performance conversations, or when you have to collaborate creatively," Chatman says.

While many restaurants remain closed and workers at home, some are finding interim substitutions. Lighthearted moments during virtual meetings -- a dog peering into the screen or a kid making a cameo -- allow people to see one another's lives more fully.

But Zoom burnout is real, and Donahue has been texting clients to ask how they and their families are doing rather than trying to make social connections on-screen.

And Karen Wickre, the author of "Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert's Guide to Making Connections That Count," notes that the return to business-as-usual might include varying stages. Depending on how it unfolds, not everyone will feel comfortable at a leisurely indoor meal.

Coffee meetups might be a substitute, she says, or even lunch dates during which the meals are BYO and the setting is a park. "It can still serve the personal, one-to-one function," she says, even if it's not as luxurious or leisurely.

Business lunches will no doubt become less frequent as more people work from home, but they may take on more importance.

A fully virtual workplace is "unsustainable," Guillén believes, but some are likely to adopt hybrid models that allow them to shrink their real estate footprints. And that could mean that workers will spend more of their in-office days cramming in the kind of in-person contact they won't find on a Zoom call.

"On those days, we will probably overcompensate," he says. "Maybe they will spend way more time socializing trying to do those things they can't do from home."

And there might be an upside to fewer business lunches -- at least in some instances.

Companies have long relied on conversations over lunches or dinners as a way of evaluating job candidates, particularly for high-level positions. But making social interactions a part of the process can disadvantage people of color and women, Chatman says.

"If the question is 'Who do you want to have lunch with?' we tend to have the best time with people similar to ourselves, since it's easier to find common ground and shared experiences," she says. "This could be an opportunity to push on not worrying how much we are 'comfortable' with someone, but to evaluate their skill set in a less personal way."

"We've been given a gift of being able to rethink work," she adds. "Anyone who doesn't is missing an opportunity."