9 December 2021, Virtual
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“New ways of work will create new ways of travelling,” Festive Road managing partner Caroline Strachan told the kick-off conference session at the recent Business Travel Show Europe in London.
Strachan was only one of several speakers to ponder the implications for travel of post-Covid workforces no longer congregating in offices but instead operating in solitude – most likely in their own homes. The big questions this mini-revolution raises for businesses are when, where and how should they bring their people together?
In fact, there is a fourth related question: who should bring them together? The answer, some believe, is travel managers, for whom an opportunity is emerging to evolve into a wider role as highly strategic employee collaboration managers.
“Post-pandemic, companies have had to change their HR and property strategies because people are not using their workspace in the same ways,” says Scott Davies, chief executive officer of the UK and Ireland’s Institute of Travel Management. “A number of our members are now involved in a five-way conversation with HR, property, security and senior management.”
Strachan’s Festive Road colleague, consultant Louise Kilgannon, makes an almost identical observation. “I see travel managers interacting far more with other departments in the business: sustainability, ESG [environmental, societal and corporate governance], HR, real estate and those in charge of the future of work,” she says. “It’s a real opportunity to have a seat at the table in terms of decision making.”
As to what is being discussed at that table, Kilgannon believes much of it relates to “redefinition of what a business trip is. Going to the office becomes more of an event, and the purpose is far more about collaboration, whereas time at home is for deep work. What you can’t replicate at home is the serendipity of bumping into someone in the corridor and finding out something related to the project you are working on. That’s why companies are driving collaboration initiatives.”
There is also increasing discussion about evaluating when business travel is and is not justifiable. Scott Gillespie, managing director of the travel management consultancy tClara, told another BTS Europe session that, at the highest levels, companies are having an identical conversation about the wisdom, or otherwise, of ordering their personnel back to shared workspaces.
“The return to office problem is the same problem we’re having in terms of justifying travel – it’s just the same thing writ large,” Gillespie said. “That’s the dilemma: does remote work work or not, and if not, when does it not work?”
Instinctively, anecdotally even, we all know that remote work does have its limitations. Whether it’s heading to the office or travelling, said Gillespie, “Think about why we get together. It’s because we believe there’s some spark, some voltage, some magic that’s going to happen when we get in a room together that we can’t obtain through a virtual channel.”
The challenge is that there is no satisfactory way to measure Gillespie’s “spark” or Kilgannon’s “serendipity”. Yet businesses can see plainly they have to adapt to avoid missing out on them.
One company doing exactly that is AMS, a firm specialising, in its own words, in “global total workforce solutions”. AMS is a couple of months into piloting with the commercial real estate services company JLL a booking platform that aggregates hotdesk and meeting space suppliers around the UK. Employees can book space by the day or even by the hour.
AMS has three offices in the UK: in London, Bracknell and Belfast. But, says senior manager for property and travel Michael McSperrin, the company is increasingly hiring people who don’t live near any of those locations, while existing employees have moved away from them over the past couple of years.
“We want to ensure they feel connected to each other,” says McSperrin, so AMS is turning to hotdesk rental “rather than renting dedicated office space here, there and everywhere,” although he adds the platform “helps to gather detail of where we might need more of our own office space in future.”
Feedback, says McSperrin, has been “overwhelmingly positive. Our people are getting a chance to meet colleagues for the first time in two years or, in some cases, ever.”
McSperrin adds there are multiple reasons to offer hotdesks, including “conducting interviews, getting away from the dining room table or kids, and simply to have a team of AMS people all sitting together, even if they aren’t working directly with each other. We find that building relationships with other teams is just as important,” he says.
“Initially this was seen as a workspace issue but as we have been going through the project we are seeing it is very heavily linked to travel. It’s giving people the opportunity to come together anywhere and reduce longer-distance travel to our own offices, which is a benefit to employee wellbeing,” says McSperrin.
At BP, meanwhile, the energy giant’s travel team is actively engaged in answering a critical question: “Are we delivering alignment to our return to office and our future agile hub, club and roam programme, where we’re making people independently and individually responsible for making decisions about where they operate efficiently and safely?” asked global category manager for travel and meetings Richard Eades at BTS Europe.
Eades’ team is seeking answers to that question in partnership with real estate and facilities – and beyond. “Travel is part of the whole environment of digital and talent at BP,” he said. “How are we going to use [our] space in future? There are 6,000 desks at our offices in Sunbury. We’re clearly not going to have 6,000 people go into the office at Sunbury now.”
Eades and his colleagues are considering whether to convert some of the desk space into what he termed “collaboration or meeting space” instead of utilising external venues.
He said these are the kinds of question most large organisations are now asking themselves – questions where travel managers can be increasingly influential in framing the answers.
“Over the last year, we’ve definitely had more engagement, more exposure and more of a seat at the table,” he said. Collaboration management is helping travel management to grow up.