What We Learnt Through Staying Home
In late 2020, in between lockdowns, we were legally, logistically, and safely able to bring together eleven leading travel managers and industry experts to discuss the future of business travel in a 1.5 day event and process we called MACROSCOPE “Live”. The theme of the event, ‘Big Thinking to Create Next Generation Business Travel’, provided an opportunity for the first face-to-face meeting that many of us had had in months and ultimately acted as a foundation for the development of our Purposeful Travel Model, due for release shortly.
As a pre-read for industry stakeholders, in advance of the forthcoming release of the Purposeful Travel Model, we felt it was important to summarise the external stimuli which resulted in the big thinking by our event attendees.
In part one of this series of three blogs, we looked at the events and changes that led to us being able to make such a huge transition in working practices in a small space of time in 2020.
In part 2, we look at what we have learnt in the past 12 months and whether the factors that had previously prevented such a change actually materialised. We also attempt to define the undefinable: what do we miss out on when travel is off the table?
We believe that the output of the MACROSCOPE “Live”, this ‘big-thinking for big-thinkers’ exercise, provides a broader view into the future of the workplace and therefore business travel. From the feedback of the delegates at MACROSCOPE “Live” the stimulus really got them thinking – but what do you think? We look forward to hearing your reactions.
 Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago suggests 3 factors prevented the growth in home-working before now:
1. Information – “bosses simply didn’t know whether clustering in an office was essential or not”
2. Coordination – “it may have been difficult for a single firm unilaterally to move to home-working, perhaps because its suppliers or clients would have found it strange”
3. Investment – “there was a huge, fixed cost in moving from office to home-based working”
The Future of Work: The Pros and Cons of Virtual Working
Is home working good for employees and businesses? And is it sustainable in the mid to long term? According to the CIPD People Profession 2030 report, ‘digital working has increased to facilitate homeworking throughout the pandemic, but nonetheless it’s difficult to predict how technology will advance in the next ten years and beyond and how this will influence our workplaces.’ Dr. Keith Mason, Professor of Transport Management at Cranfield University shared that improved broadband infrastructure means that video conferencing technology is much better and the progression of 5G will improve this further. However, the advent of teleconferencing in the 80s was also expected to have an adverse effect on business travel and evidence would suggest otherwise.
To understand the real impact of virtual work on employees, who previously travelled frequently, we asked a road warrior, ‘Chris’, senior director for a global biopharmaceutical company. Pre 2020, Chris travelled weekly to mainland Europe and North America. He was one of the top 5% of travellers in his organisation and was keen to point out that he was a proud holder of a British Airways gold card, the ultimate in business travel status symbols!
Chris shared the positives of being at home more. These included increased family time, in particular with his children and wife. Relationships had grown closer as a result. Further to this, from a wellbeing point of view, Chris has lost weight and now sleeps much better as a result of not travelling. Overall, his lifestyle is much improved. However, he noted that he and other colleagues are all itching to get back on the road. Why is this?
In roles where relationship building is key, virtual just doesn’t always cut it. Chris shared that his success in working virtually was, ‘underpinned by the many years of face-to-face relationship building he had invested in’. As it stands, Chris feels disconnected from his organisation and notes that projects are progressing at a far slower rate. In confirmation of this, Chris and 3 colleagues took the opportunity to have a socially-distanced dinner in between lock downs. They achieved more in 2.5 hours than they had in three weeks of working virtually.
The main drawback to working virtually, aside from feeling lonely and disconnected, is difficult to put your finger on, but is perhaps best described as a creative spark. Office working and business trips afford a social capital that just can’t be replicated on Zoom. The chance conversations over dinner, the reading of body language and non-verbal cues.
Crucially, is it the development of all important social and intellectual capital that is suffering.
According to Andy Haldane in his speech for the Bank of England, ‘those informal between-meetings conversations are, in my experience, the bedrock of relationship-building and the key to trust–building. It is the loss of those informal moments that has resulted in many of us running down our past stock of social capital for the past six months. This cannot be done indefinitely.’ So, is it just those serendipitous chance conversations or meetings that drive innovation? Not so, according to Andy, ‘it is also well-established that exposure to new and different experiences – sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people – is a key source of creative spark.’
A 2017 study by Matthew Claudel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found a positive relationship between proximity & collaboration. Their summary: “Proximity can help people come up with new ideas, but they do not necessarily need to be in an office to do so’. This viewpoint is echoed by Katie Jacobs, Senior Stakeholder Lead at the CIPD: ‘The experience of place, the idea of workspace is disintegrating around us but you still need to create experiences for people to come together and collaborate…but the HQ in London may not be the best place to do that!’ It seems that the CEO of Pinterest is in agreement, as they recently paid $90M to end a new lease obligation on office space near their HQ in San Francisco to create a “more distributed workforce”.
So, will other companies follow suit? Have we really seen the end of the 9 to 5? After all, we are talking about a model that was invented during the British Industrial Revolution in 1817 and further supported by Henry Ford in the 1920s. A model, which mistakes busyness for productivity and doesn’t fit with our modern lives.
In the next and final part of this Purposeful Travel series, we look to the future of business travel and how the momentous change we have all undergone will impact how organisations and individuals feel about it when we return to the ‘new normal.’
Produced by Louise Kilgannon, United Kingdom