The COVID-19 epidemic has completely shaken up the way we live. Many businesses have closed, while others, such as restaurants, are only offering takeout service. People who have managed to take their business completely online have found that it is possible for them to survive in this new reality. The question is, when this outbreak finally comes to a close? Will businesses choose to continue operating in the virtual sphere, which in many cases significantly reduces overhead operating costs? Or will they revert back to how they were in the pre-COVID-19 days?I recently spoke with Hadas Zimmerman, a clinical dietitian who rents a room in a clinic in central Tel Aviv. Zimmerman found a few minutes to speak on the phone before her next Zoom video session with a client was scheduled to begin. “Before COVID-19, I was adamantly opposed to holding counseling sessions through online platforms,” Zimmerman admits. “Being able to sit face to face and really be there in the moment with my client is so important to me. And of course, being a dietician, I need to be able to weigh my clients. “But I admit that the meetings I’ve been holding with clients virtually are going really well. My clients weigh themselves at home ahead of time, take a picture of the number and send it to me. And I even had a former client who hadn’t been to me in ages make a Zoom appointment with me. There’s no doubt that this epidemic has opened up an entirely new world for me that I would never have ventured into beforehand.”Was it difficult to make the adjustment to using a virtual platform?“Well, I admit I was a bit flustered the first few days, but I quickly found solid footing. I feel that I have a mission to help veteran as well as new clients navigate through these difficult times and remain as healthy as possible. So many of us are stuck at home and barely moving our bodies, which means we’re not burning very many calories. “On top of this, we’re eating lots of junk food or comforting ourselves with high-calorie treats to overcome increased anxiety. The Zoom sessions are actually proceeding with much fewer technical problems than I projected.”Did any of your clients decide to stop using your services because of the new digital platform?“No, but I do have two clients who are on unpaid leave who decided to stop coming to me since they are struggling financially, and our sessions fit into the category of extras. Moreover, I reduced my fees by 20%-30%, since I know that everyone is having a hard time making ends meet in these difficult times.” Not only did Zimmerman succeed in keeping her practice alive using a virtual platform, but she used this epidemic as a springboard to create an online support community. “This is something I’ve been thinking of doing for a long time,” she says. “I started a Facebook group where members can receive inspiration to take on daily challenges, read lists of tips for healthy living, and receive emotional support. There’s even a section so people can swap recipes. I post new workout routines every other day to make it more fun for everyone to stay in shape.”Do you think that you’ll continue to hold sessions with clients virtually even after the epidemic comes to an end?“Absolutely! Now that I’ve been operating remotely for a few weeks, my brain has finally made the switch, and I’m now comfortable meeting with clients online. I think that when everything goes back to some type of normal, I’ll begin offering all of my clients the opportunity to choose whether they want to come in person or meet virtually. “This will also enable me to set a schedule that fits better with my personal needs. I’m definitely going to keep my clinic, even though the rent is expensive, because there’s still something so special about sitting face to face with people. I like the idea of having both options available.”Gali Lev, who runs experiential English-language workshops called “Happy English,” is also concerned about losing the personal connection with her students. Lev conducts workshops with hundreds of Israeli school-age children between first and fifth grades in elementary schools in Bat Yam and Tel Aviv. During the summer, she runs an English-language camp at Tel Aviv University. “We’re continuing to pay tens of thousands of shekels in rent to schools and municipalities,” Lev says, “even though our classes are not taking place right now in person. We’ve been working very hard to carry out virtual classes for all of our students, so that the children can continue learning English from home. We’re trying really hard to keep our business afloat.”What’s a typical day for you like nowadays?“At the beginning of each week, I send out an email to all the parents with the weekly schedule, and they sign their kids up for the sessions that are convenient for them. I hold the classes on Zoom, and there are usually about 10 kids in each session, which is the same number we have in the classroom. “In an effort to get the kids excited about participating in the virtual classes, we’ve added – free of charge – meetups with kids their age in countries around the world where they get to enjoy a virtual escape room experience together. We’re also inviting the kids to participate in two hours of classes instead of just the one, like they had at school. I think that the level of learning is pretty much at the same level we have during regular classes. “In other words, I don’t think moving into the virtual sphere has affected the quality of our sessions. Almost all of the parents are happy to continue with Zoom classes. Only about 10%-15% decided to freeze their payments, which is totally fine. We completely get it.”Despite the success of the virtual English classes, Lev does not believe that they will continue with this medium when school goes back to normal. “At the end of the day, you can’t compare the quality of teaching and frontal learning when you’re all together in the same space,” Lev explains. “This is a great solution for the current circumstances, which we’ve been forced to deal with, but you just can’t compare it to the experience we have when we’re physically together in the same room. We hope to be able to go back to regular sessions as soon as possible.”“In the surreal reality we’re living in, there are no right or wrong answers,” explains Nili Goldfein, the deputy CEO at Niram-Gitan, who is a management and leadership specialist that focuses on virtual working.“Almost every human phenomenon is connected to extremes in two different directions,” explains Goldfein. “For example, in the field of human-technology relations, there is a very great need for complex and sophisticated technological solutions, while at the same time, retaining the humanistic aspects is just as important. “Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, there’s been a huge increase in the use of technological platforms. Now that we’ve all become accustomed to holding meetings and classes on Zoom, some of our interactions will continue to take place virtually. But we’re not robots – we’re human beings. For example, last night I joined my weekly Pilates class on Zoom, and it was great. “But I assume that when this epidemic comes to a close, like many others, I prefer to go back to the class at the studio. They have all sorts of equipment there that none of us have at home, and the teacher can go around the room and help us perfect our stretches. Not to mention that it’s lots of fun to see friends and chat before and after the class. “Some types of gatherings will continue to take place online, whereas others will go back to meeting face to face, since that type of interaction brings in more clients. At the end of the day, people love to talk with others in person, without having to engage any technological devices.”Up until COVID-19 took over our lives, Dalia Mantber had been teaching Pilates in a large studio she rents in Tel Aviv. She would also upload videos of Pilates stretches to the internet. “When we were forced to close the studio, a friend suggested that I continue offering Pilates instruction by Zoom, which I decided to try. I look at how my client is performing on my iPad and explain to her how to improve her position. I can say, lower your shoulders, or crouch down a little bit more, etc. I can see how flexible she is and how strong she is, and from this knowledge I can build her a personalized routine. “I kept doing these sessions for free through the end of March. But then my clients started telling me that there’s no reason I shouldn’t be paid for my time. By April, I felt like I had gained a better understanding of how to offer virtual instruction, and so I began charging for sessions. I mean, I need to pay for my groceries somehow. It’s definitely a win-win situation and everyone is benefiting.”Are you charging as much as you did for sessions you gave in the studio?“Well, in the studio I have lots of special Pilates equipment, and so I’m limited in the number of stretches I can recommend. Even in the studio, floor Pilates classes are less expensive. It’s also different now, because in the studio people pay for group classes, which are much cheaper than private sessions.”Have you started thinking about how you want to offer classes after the epidemic ends?“In the studio, I have a number of teachers who work for me with a huge number of clients. This results in a nice amount of passive income for me. I think that after the COVID-19 outbreak settles down and we’re able to reopen the studio, I’ll probably continue to offer some virtual instruction to clients who can’t or don’t want to come to the studio. “I’m also thinking of offering my expertise to people who live all over Israel. The classes won’t be too expensive, because they won’t require any equipment. It’s always nice to have a little more income.”In contrast with business owners who are considering keeping virtual platform sessions as an extra level of service after the COVID-19 epidemic calms down, Liat Feder-Sasson, a practitioner of classical homeopathy, is seriously considering keeping web-based services as her main platform.“Until the recent epidemic, I would see patients in my clinic in Ra’anana,” Feder-Sasson explains. “But now, due to restrictions, I started working from home, doing sessions with clients mostly on Zoom, and sometimes on other virtual platforms. All these technologies are pretty simple to learn, and I consider myself a bit of a technophobe. “I thought it would take me time to get used to it, but it was pretty seamless. And what I discovered is that I actually really enjoy treating people this way, and it’s a lot cheaper than renting office space. I also like the fact that I can hold sessions any time of the day.”How have your clients reacted?“For now, every single person has agreed to hold our appointment virtually instead of in person. No one has requested a reduced fee, though they have asked if the price will remain the same. I have reduced the price of sessions, since my overhead is now much less. “Normally, the first session with a homeopath lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. I used to charge NIS 650 for this, but now I’m only charging NIS 600. Return visits - people usually come once a month – used to be NIS 350, but I’ve reduced them to NIS 310. The quality of my treatments has not decreased, just the venue. “I have three older kids, and it was easy for me to close myself off in one of the rooms in our house when I’m holding a session with a patient so we’re not bothered by what’s going on in the rest of the house. I imagine this is not as easily done in homes with small children. Some of my colleagues have stopped working in the meantime, or are only seeing a very small number of clients since they are busy with their children.”Feder-Sasson is a member of Atzma’it, a networking group for women that helps small business owners promote themselves. “If I were to give up my clinic and work completely from home virtually, I’d save a ton of money,” she explains. “But I just don’t think I’d feel the same if I didn’t at least have the first initial meeting with clients in person, so that I can really feel their energy clearly. I’m trying to figure out if I can make a space for these initial sessions in my home, and then continue with the follow-up sessions online. “Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, I’m completely rethinking my business model, and wondering if it still makes sense for me to rent expensive office space. I think at the end of the month, I’ll probably still make more money at home, even at my reduced rates.”“I don’t think that after the COVID-19 crisis subsides that most people will continue from home, since we are all social creatures and crave interaction with other people,” concludes Dr. Gadi Ravid, dean of the School of Business at Netanya Academic College. “Many people and businesses were successful in overcoming the psychological barriers and started using technology to communicate and join meetings and classes. Now that many people who were naturally disinclined to use Zoom and other services have now become more comfortable using these platforms, I believe that a small portion will continue in this format even after the epidemic ends. “Most small businesses, however, I think will go back to their pre-COVID-19 office space, even though this requires rental fees, sitting in traffic and other overhead costs. People like interacting with other people – it’s just our nature.”According to Ravid, these same changes will also be seen among salaried employees. “The number of salaried employees who actually ended up working from home during the crisis was relatively small,” Ravid claims. “In most cases, people worked from home because they needed to take care of small children. But overall, people continued to go into their place of work. It’s possible that when everything goes back to normal, some people will continue working remotely, but that will still constitute a very small percentage of the workforce.” Do you foresee a drop in the number of small-business owners who rent office space?“The office rental industry was inflated even before this recent virus epidemic. There has always been more supply than demand in this area. There will probably be a decrease, but I’m not sure how significant it will be. But I do believe that rental prices will surely drop straight away. “The real question is, however, how long will this epidemic last? No one knows the answer that question.”Translated by Hannah Hochner.