Many organizations use travel bans to control costs when times are tough. All but essential customer travel is blocked, costs come down, with seemingly little impact on the business; but, as soon as the ban is relaxed, travel bounces back to its previous level.
Many international travelers look back to an extended period of low travel following 9/11 and reflect that the impact on the business was minimal, if any. When asked, many regular international travelers consider the level of travel they do to be crazy. However, the flying circus continues.
So it’s clear that business travel fulfils a number of functions – some commercial and some corporate cultural. You can constrict it through blunt bans, but given the choice, people jump on a plane.
The amount of travel in an organization is a good indicator of the level of face-to-face collaboration. It’s also often related to the profitability of the organization. We have clients who work in very low margin industries who would never consider the level of travel that is normal and accepted in higher margin organizations.
One of the major drivers of travel is meetings; others may be market, team or periodic site visits. Less obvious reasons include networking and being visible – key challenges in larger organizations. However, the fact that we travel to do these things is an indicator that we don’t have the skills, ways of working or corporate culture that enable us to do these things remotely. If the only way we know to meet, collaborate, network and stay visible is by getting face-to-face, then it is unsurprising there is such a high degree of interest in getting on plane.
Conversely, if we want to reduce the amount of travel people do, then we have to enable a way of working that delivers these things remotely – otherwise travel will just bounce back after a ban.
Capability building is part of that; we can train people in remote management techniques and we can train people to make more effective use of communications technology. The more difficult to change is the way of working. If we send one newly trained remote manager back into an organization with tens of thousands of people who expect them to show up face-to-face, then it will be hard for them to make a change.
Changing ways of working in large organizations is a real challenge. It requires the right technology infrastructure, the right skills and a sustained campaign to change ways of working at scale. If we don’t do this, we can expect travel to resume as normal once any immediate financial pressures have passed. However, this simply masks a probably unnecessary level of cost; it becomes a normal part of the cost structure of the organization, even though many managers suspect is not necessary.
If you want to enable a sustained reduction in the level of travel in your company, call and ask us about our work with other organizations in this area.