Back to the office yet?
Your answer to that question has more to do with your industry than it does with company policy. It’s (relatively) easy to be a software company and have the workers work from home, but it’s a lot harder to do that if you are in the manufacturing sector. It’s tough to make gigantic rolls of paper without working in the paper mill.
Many of us are realizing two separate ideas which are in tension with each other, and are also causing tension in us. First, business travel is never going to bounce back to it’s pre-pandemic levels, and second, we are social animals and crave connection. The busiest among us suffer from acute “Zoom Fatigue”.
But the descriptor “business travel” is too crude. After all, not all business travel is created equally. So it was interesting to me to read this data from consulting firm AlixPartners that provides a business travel breakdown. According to them, the reasons for business travel are:
- 30% customer support
- 25% sales and business development
- 20% trade shows and conferences
- 20% internal meetings and training
- 5% commuting
There are a myriad of reasons for companies to never pick up the same travel routine once the pandemic abates. The primary, of course, is cost. The CFOs of the corporate world are looking at how much money they were shelling out annually to the airlines and hotels and thinking they don’t want to return to the old days.
Interestingly, a number of companies are establishing sustainability targets, and less air travel equals lower CO2 emissions. This emphasis aligns with many of their employees who are themselves re-thinking their own contribution to CO2 emissions, something I’ve been doing since reading this book and (belatedly) realizing the incredible CO2 footprint of commercial air travel.
The travel industry is hoping the biggest cuts will come in the “internal meetings and training” category, but I think the reductions will impact all five categories:
30% customer support
Virtual meetings will likely replace some of these trips. Only a small number of these “customer support” trips actually require someone to be on premise. Also, note that whether to travel for a meeting isn’t up to just the vendor. The customer’s team is increasingly spread out, thus making the idea of everyone meeting in the customer’s office more and more unlikely, thus leading to more virtual meetings.
25% sales and business development
Like all these categories, this one will never go away completely. But depending upon the price tag and margin of the goods being sold, expect to see more initial sales presentations happening online, with in-person meetings happening later in the sales cycle if both parties are leaning forward. Many deals will get done (and are getting done now) without anyone traveling.
20% trade shows and conferences
Part of me believes this is ripe for reduction, but there was a massive cut in trade show budgets during the 2008 recession that never rebounded. I’m sure there will be more cuts here, but this may end up being more resilient than some people believe due to the “we are still social animals” thing, and the ability for companies to talk to multiple customers during one trip (assuming the customers are allowed to travel to the show).
20% internal meetings and training
For sure. This is absolutely getting cut, although companies will do this, possibly, at their peril. As companies in the late-20th century used a number of management theories to dramatically reduce staff, there emerged a sort of hollowed out company that hadn’t just cut the fat but had cut into their muscle. These companies suffered from what some referred to as “corporate anorexia”. Internal meetings (in person) are important conduits of culture, and – as Peter Drucker famously observed – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
This is one of those “on one hand/on the other hand” categories. On one hand, the idea of commuting to a largely empty office is laughable. On the other hand, with more employees spread out over wider geographies (“Hi boss – I just moved to Austin”) you could see this category being somewhat resilient, even if it changes.
None of this qualifies as earth-shaking insight, but it’s helpful to adapt to the new world. And adaptation requires awareness of how our environment is changing.
Deciding how you, as an individual contributor and leader, will successfully adapt to the world you live in – not the world you wished you lived in, or the world as it used to be – is an important contributor to your future success.