Over two months have passed since the start of the Brussels Coronavirus lockdown. After the initial shock that required those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home to make adjustments, Brussels lobbyists – known for their networking lunches, coffee catch-ups and numerous evening receptions – have had to come to terms with another challenge: how do you drink coffee virtually?

Does ‘telelobbying’ work?

In the highly diverse Brussels bubble, in-person networking has always been essential to how we do business – and policy. We all rely heavily on our personal and professional networks and trusted relationships. National connections also play an important part and the multicultural make-up of the city means that most of us are fairly tuned into sensitivities for cultural differences, which, in most cases, are more easily navigated when interacting in person.

However, these past weeks have forced us to be creative and to make ‘telelobbying’ a reality. The dynamics are clearly different and perhaps not everyone is a natural at it. But it works! The trick is actually an old one: to choose the right channels for the right people, which depends as much on personal habits and tech-savviness as on access to the latest digital infrastructure.

So how do you drink a virtual coffee?

Essentially, you need to rely on the power of your own relationships and not be afraid of creating those informal moments for a catch-up. You may be surprised to see that people love to be invited for a virtual coffee or an after work virtual drink. While you will still have to arrange it, you will create the space for a chat in a less formal way. And you will find that, in the end, a virtual coffee can be organised in a similar way to those in-person ones that you were having just some months ago – at the end of a meeting, for instance, or because you saw someone’s name on a webinar agenda.

But how do you bump into someone in times of COVID-19?

The bigger challenge is perhaps to replace those informal catch-ups that often take place ahead of a meeting or at the end of it while walking to the elevator. Even more difficult is bumping into someone accidentally, as you would at the Mickey Mouse bar in the European Parliament or in Place Lux.

That said, there are good ways to ‘bump into people’ virtually. For instance, at one of the many webinars that we all attend. Being digitally visible at key events is certainly another way to see and be seen. The caveat here is that you need to pick your events carefully – just as you would with traditional ones. In the virtual space, you need to be even more attentive to making sure that your attendance adds value to the discussion.

And then of course, as lockdown measures start to relax, there is also the opportunity to meet contacts in very informal in-person – but now socially distant – contexts, such as queuing at the commune for your new mask or walking around a Brussels institution like the lake at the Bois de la Cambre.

So don’t be shy to also master the art of distant lobbying – it is uncharted territory for everyone, and you may find yourself a natural at it!

Is the new normal here to stay? 

As public affairs experts and two people with an inclination towards personal interactions, we both look forward to going back to something closer to the traditional Brussels way of networking. However, the current situation has shown that there are also opportunities that come with this new way of working and it is probably safe to say that some of these changes are here to stay.

Having successfully mastered the new mix of phone and video calls, webinars, emails and instant messages, we certainly appreciate the flexibility that comes with it. It is comforting to see that policymakers are continuing to engage with external stakeholders during this time and we can assume that many will remain available to do so digitally after the crisis is over. Clearly an opportunity for engaging in new, and sometimes more interesting, ways!

While the crisis has led to unprecedented disruption and serious challenges in people’s lives and for Europe’s healthcare systems, in our field of expertise – health policy – it has also opened new avenues and opportunities for improvement. Never before has health received so much attention at EU level, as witnessed by the Commission’s recent EU4Health initiative, which promises to be only the beginning of more EU action in health – thus addressing a key demand by European citizens ahead of this legislative period. High time to add those virtual coffees to our routine in “the Brussels bubble” and get cracking with some concrete change for patients and health systems across Europe.

At Incisive Health we are uniquely placed to support our clients in navigating the health policy space during these changing times – for the benefit of patients in Europe and worldwide.