Why remote working means more business travel not less

Eoin Landers
Eoin Landers

November 24 ∙ 6 minutes read

In my last news roundup, the return of business travel seemed imminent, not least domestic travel. However, almost as soon as countries started reopening their borders, they were forced to close again due to a second wave of rising infections. The unpredictability of this global pandemic proof that we’ve got a long way to go, even with current announcements about vaccine developments.

Most recently, Bill Gates waded into the debate suggesting that more than 50% of business travel will disappear in a post-coronavirus world. His argument that travelling somewhere to physically sit in front of someone else is no longer the “gold standard”. In some ways, he has a point, especially with the forced domination of video conferencing technologies standing up to the test.

There’s a flaw to this argument though.

Business travel does not simply constitute flying

If you consult official dictionaries, ‘business trip’ is defined as: a journey made somewhere and back again for business purposes in one’s working capacity. 

It does not stipulate the mode of travel used for that journey. We may no longer fly across the Atlantic for a meeting but given the opportunity to drive an hour or get on a train for the chance to discuss business matters in-person, there’s no doubt people will be leaving their usual place of work – whether an office or their home.

Though we’re used to doing virtual meetings, we know that virtual simply isn’t the same as in-person. As Great Business Schools estimates, over a quarter of current business would be lost without face-to-face meetings. That’s a statistic businesses can’t afford in order to grow faster than their competition.

What’s abundantly clear is, as Gates also says, most companies will have a “very high threshold” for doing business trips in the future. This is something Business Travel News (BTN) picked up on recently in “Shifting from analysing trip cost to meeting value”. The future of travel, post-Covid, must deliver maximum value to a business, and an organisation’s systems and processes must be able to facilitate the real-time analysis of this. 

Do Bill Gates’ business travel predictions make sense?

We’re clearly not the only ones questioning the validity of Gates’ argument. Even though his comments follow similar remarks by the CEO of Softbank who claims to prefer talking business on Zoom – over “dinner and a glass of wine”.

Skift reported last week hearing other CEOs saying Zoom fatigue could lead to more business trips being taken. “I’ve been fond of saying the first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom,” said one CEO.

Despite what individual organisations do moving forwards, there is clearly recognition that face to face is required to build trust, transfer culture and become more efficient.  

To use a travel-related example, the building of Boeing’s 777 was their first remote project. They found that the process was 40% faster than comparable co-located paper-based designs. But only when they brought the entire team together for 18 months to learn how to function together. The shared experiences developed a level of trust between the team members that later allowed them to overcome the obstacles caused by their separation during the project.

In today’s business setting, even with the technologies available to us, how do you replicate that intense period of bonding? We have all experienced serendipity in the workplace. Through that team building time that existed after work in the bar, during a lunch hour or around the coffee machine. All of this will now need business travel. High performing companies will want to get everyone on the same page, energised and working collaboratively. And this will always be better quality when occurring naturally in person rather than via a forced video conference.

No vaccine, no travel: getting business trips back up and running

There have been reports of countries looking at relaxing quarantine rules for short-term international business travellers. The news comes in the recently published report of the global travel taskforce as reported by Business Travel Europe this week. With the expectation that business travel will recover slowly, there is a need to boost confidence whilst supporting economic recovery.

And the debate has swiftly moved on from testing to vaccinations due to trial progress. A welcome relief for some that also prompted the widely debated announcement from Qantas that could see the airline demand all passengers have the coronavirus vaccine before they fly. It’s expected the measure will become a prerequisite for future travel on all airlines.

It’s certainly something that will enable businesses to guarantee the safety of their employees, as suggested by GBTA’s Executive Director, Dave Hilfman back in the summer. His impassioned plea: “business travel is irreplaceable and anybody who tells you otherwise hasn’t been on a business trip.”

All of this in addition to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) appeal to passengers for common sense in wearing face coverings both for themselves and fellow passengers. Ultimately, failure to comply can jeopardise a flight’s safety, disrupt the travel experience of other passengers and airline crew.

Remote working means more business travel not less

I’ve been a remote worker long before the current COVID situation and I am sure of one thing: remote working means more business travel not less. Whilst videoconferencing will replace some of that rapport building, nothing replaces looking somebody in the eye shaking their hand and talking freely about a situation.  

Think about in your own life. Are you happy and content with the personal interactions you’re having with your family via calls only? I know I’m not and that’s why I believe the need to see people in person will remain. It may occur less often, and we may be able to substitute more of it with video conferencing tools, but it will never go away completely.

The 9/11 attacks had a significant effect on global business travel, but it found its feet several years later. There was a similar downturn and revival in business travel after the global financial crisis of 2007-09.

Undoubtedly, business travel will be different due to the severity of this crisis. Key is going to be how businesses determine the value of travel and its contribution to business growth – and whether doing business through a screen is simply too high a price to pay. 

That could be the true cost of business travel. 

(And let’s remember that Gates has been wrong before – when claiming email spam will be gone within two years…in 2004.)

Eoin Landers

Eoin Landers