Manuel Brachet is vice president of commercial & customer success at travel management company Egencia
Recently, some of the world’s most successful CEOs have openly acknowledged the limitations of virtual business. It comes a year after many companies around the world were forced into the widespread adotion of such technology.
In conversation with The Wall Street Journal, Netflix chief Reed Hastings was perhaps the most emphatic. “I don’t see any positives,” he said. “Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.”
Meanwhile, JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon blames homeworking for a fall in productivity on Mondays and Fridays.
These are among the reasons why the business travel sector will rebound, and why the most sustainable strategy for corporations will be adopting a hybrid approach of both virtual and physical gatherings when engaging employees.
Many companies agree that virtual technology serves a purpose and can act as a substitute for some meetings, but there is less agreement about who will travel, for what reasons, and when.
It is likely that we will see organisations creating a clearer distinction between external travel (visiting customers, suppliers, partners or shareholders) and internal travel (meeting fellow employees for training, teambuilding and strategy etc) as travel starts to return. In other words, many companies might consider limiting face-to-face interaction to meetings with ‘tangible revenue or cost savings’ attached.
It's easy to understand the rationale. As the Financial Times editorial board argued in January, “face-to-face encounters are an important lubricant for deals, innovation and policymaking”. Partner events, trade shows and customer meetings are essential to building a sales pipeline and converting business. Employee events, less so.
But I believe there is a risk to suppressing internal meetings. It is important not to overlook the positive impact that bringing employees together has on culture, collaboration and knowledge transfer. While these benefits can’t be measured in a spreadsheet, they deliver substantial value back to the organisation.
For example, a study conducted by BTN and Egencia in February revealed that 83 per cent of travel managers in EMEA and the Americas believe their colleagues are missing the camaraderie of meeting with colleagues at industry and international events.
In fact, the study showed just 12 per cent of buyers believe that reduced travel has had a positive impact on company culture and morale, highlighting that the majority still experience the benefits of face-to-face interaction.
Some organisations will avoid making sweeping decisions about travel policies, at least in the early months of the recovery, and opt instead for a more reactive approach. Rather than determining exactly who returns to travel and when, they will sit back and see how the working world rebalances after the pandemic loosens its grip.
Travel managers are integral to devising the next steps and a new approach to business travel within their organisations. They are founts of knowledge across the different areas of a business, hearing directly from colleagues about how comfortable they are feeling, what the business needs are for in-person interactions, and how others in their respective industries are approaching travel in general.
But ultimately, the most important factor in ensuring where the bar is set is the balance of voices around the boardroom table. While the CFO will inevitably push for any operational savings that will not immediately impact top line revenue, HR and travel should channel the words of Dimon and Hastings and ensure their organisation’s definition of ‘essential travel’ does not become too narrow.