Nearly two thirds (62%) of businesses in the UK have customers that they have never met, according to research by BT Business.

Highlighting the changing relationship between businesses and their customers, BT also found that more than half (56%) have only ever contacted customers via email.

When figures for suppliers are included, 85% of British businesses have people they work with that they haven’t met in person. The reasons for this range from being based elsewhere in the UK (59%) or in a different country (31%), to the fact that the nature of work simply does not require face-to-face contact (66%). BT suggested that this points to a major shift in working patterns towards a “Virtual Economy”.

The survey also revealed that this new economy is being driven by social media. More than half of those on LinkedIn (54%) have accepted a request from someone they had never had any previous contact with, and three quarters have accepted a request from someone they have never met in person (73%). Interestingly, this practice has led to new business opportunities in four in ten cases and a new business partnership in nearly a third, suggesting a less formal approach to business relationships and collaborative working.

Despite these shifting practices, the survey shows that traditional methods of building business relationships are still going strong: 71% of new business leads still come from existing customers and clients, 38% through mutual friends and 31% from attending networking events.

Similarly, face-to-face communication is still the most common method of internal collaboration in those companies surveyed, and the evidence suggests that employees would prefer to use it more given the option. For example, 29% said they would prefer to communicate face-to-face with those external to the business on projects, whereas the actual figure for the most common method for this was less than half that (13%).

Danny Longbottom, managing director, UK SME, said: “We see the ‘Virtual Economy’ playing a major part in our customers’ businesses on a daily basis, particularly when it comes to international trade and exporting among smaller and mid-sized businesses. It is very interesting to see wider evidence of the cultural changes it brings. While this new way of working, driven by high speed internet access and associated new technologies like cloud applications, has numerous benefits, the results also provide some food for thought to businesses about the fundamental nature of people and how they work best. Technology is a facilitator, but face-to-face and telephone communication still have an important role to play, and people work and collaborate best when they are able to communicate in whatever way best suits their goals.”

Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, said: “This report shows entrepreneurs increasingly at ease in making those connections and doing business with people they haven’t met, whilst still valuing the power of face-to-face communication. It delivers the evidence to show technology has made the world a smaller and more connected place — and one that makes the working life of the self-employed so much easier as social media is embraced for promotion, cloud computing for key business functions, and powerful marketplaces for international trade.”