This week I had some meetings in London. A carriage to myself into Paddington, a station concourse with more staff than passengers, a tube journey where there were so many seats to choose from, I arrived at my destination before I could decide where to sit. My international hotel had twenty-five guests (I asked) and while the Covid trained reception team did their best to pass on corporate reassurances through their branded masks, their eyes, as eyes always do, gave a more reliable testimony of personal uncertainty and concern.

Meetings with clients took place in pleasant strolls along the Embankment or in Royal Parks. Gentle elbow bumps replaced the sometimes slightly awkward moment when one is not sure if it is one kiss or two, or a warm handshake and, or, a light hug. Conversation was easy and warm and kind. More personal than usual, dwelling on health, family and friends, and with none of the awkward Zoominess of the video conversation frame.

It felt so good to be with people again. It felt good to sense when a conversation should change course or to know that now was a good time to unwrap a small period of silence and to let it be. It felt good to be preoccupied with someone else’s story, and not to be preoccupied by the light in your room, or the arrangement of books behind you.

However, there was also melancholy in the air. Walking back to my near empty hotel, the streets were not thronged, and the cafes and bars were mostly closed. This silence, for London, was uncomfortable to hear. A quiet city is at first stunningly beautiful, but soon becomes a challenge to one’s senses. A million stories not being told, lives and plans and hopes on hold. The silence a makeshift stage for our fears to play to their socially distanced audience of one.

As I walked, I wondered if business would ever be the same again; but as my meetings from earlier in the day had shown me, business is not a building. Commerce is not a contract. Strategy is not anything at all. Everything is people. Gigabytes of syllables, a billion emotions an hour running along superhighways of love, kindness, hopes and fears. Proximity is not a distance, but a feeling created by people who do not need a password to connect.

We need to get back to work, but not for the work. We need to congregate at events again, but not for the music or the sport. We need to see things together again, but not for the things we look at together. These things simply provide the cover stories for us to be human.

An experience which is not shared is a cardboard cut-out version of the real thing. It is the sharing of the experience that gives it depth and shape and substance, and life.

People often ask me, “how is your business Paul?” and I waffle on about this and that, and try not to overshare or underplay. However, after my two days in London this week, the question is much easier to answer. There is no business.

There is nothing to touch, or pick up or to take a selfie with; there is nothing that exists separately that has an opinion or a life of its own. There is just us and the time we spend with each other, thinking about each other, helping each other and the shared experience which then becomes a shared memory.

Covid is teaching me that we had over-relied on an office address, with its policies, processes and hierarchies, to make our working lives seem meaningful. I suspect the truth is that these things provided a mostly inconsequential backdrop to what is truly important – and that is how we make each other feel.

The lesson I am reflecting upon, after my two days in London this week is that being truly present with people energises creativity, sparks thoughtfulness, dampens anxiety, lessens selfishness, challenges our thinking, unsettles our lazy notions, reaffirms an affection to learn and grow, and above all honours our opportunity to make a positive difference to other people in this world.

Take care x