Most business-to-business businesses are relationship businesses. They are driven by the relationships that exist within and outside. On trust built between people and on the way in which they interact with one another.

Whilst procurement processes might deliver a level of objectiveness to the process of establishing new business contracts, who bids and who is able to be successful in delivery ultimately depends on the relationships that exists between people. Business is not a clinical machine. It’s far softer than that.

In the past few years, we have seen extensive discussion about what the world of hybrid working will mean to businesses, but the debate has been almost entirely focused on the way in which businesses engage with their employees, and how their employees engage with one another. Hybrid working as centred on the atomic organisation, not the ecosystem in which it operates.

But if you are a relationship business (and most B2B businesses other than the biggest brands are, I’d argue) how are you preparing to build new relationships in the hybrid world ahead that, as I think we are all now realising, isn’t going away any time soon?

I’ve worked in many organisations over the years where the pressure to deliver the product or the show brings people together physically as well as emotionally. Getting the product out of the door, ready for press or ready for production. Getting the show on the stage. Groups of people, from suppliers and clients, brought together in the same place, working the same hours, eating the same food together.

This camaraderie (the etymology of which is “room mate”) can be palpable. Trust built that means that people “have each others’ backs”.

But how will those bonds be formed when we aren’t room mates? Is it even possible to form relationships when everyone is sits in isolation at the end of a Zoom call?

I’m not convinced that in-person is the only way, but I am sure that trying to just lift and shift in person relationship building to the online realm won’t work. Anyone who has attended an online conference in the past two years will know what I mean.

When Chris Weston and I set up the WB-40 podcast six years ago we didn’t really know what we were doing, and the only real reason we did so was to see what would happen. We hypothesised that we might have some fun. We hypothesised that we might generate some business (and we were both running our own ventures at the time).

Whilst we’ve definitely had fun, and we both drove some business from it, the real jewel in the crown of what we’ve created with the podcast (apart from, obviously, over 200 episodes of scintillating conversation about the challenges of technology leadership) is a community.

A community that has dozens of people, a true sense of camaraderie, and people really looking out for each other. And a community that has never met in total in the physical world.

It happened by chance when someone set up a WhatsApp group. It mushroomed and grew through the lockdowns when so many people where looking for connection, and it continues to thrive.

Can I reverse engineer what happened? No, not really. Other than it did happen and it was constrained by geography to be an online community. But neither can I reverse engineer the relationships that I have in the business world that have turned into work in a way that makes them into a set of repeatable rules to follow.

Relationships online have existed for as long as online has existed. Even as far back as the days of the electric telegraph. Relationship-based businesses go back even further.

In the coming years we’ll see successful businesses beingthe ones who can adapt their approaches so that they can have thriving relationships in the hybrid world. It’s more than just online conferences. It’s more than just content marketing. And it’s going to be fascinating to see how it develops.

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