Seoul, February 2019. The last time I hopped on a plane and flew anywhere for business for many, many months.
Back then, I spent over a decade intensively traveling all over the world, especially internationally, both for internal meetings and customer visits. My colleagues at my former employers knew I loved to break new grounds and explore new territories, whether they were new industries or new countries.
One entrepreneurial marketing director thought she could derive additional benefit from all these miles flown. And thus was born On The Road With Steve, which she hosted on the company's website for years.
A regular blog about business and technology peppered with light humor born out of my experience in different countries, I loved to write that diary. And apparently, it was well-read by employees and external stakeholders alike.
And then came COVID. All of it came to a screeching halt.
Fast forward 25 long months later: I finally once again made my way to Boston Logan and boarded a plane. Ultimate destination: London, UK.
Sure, some of it felt different. Masks everywhere during the transit—at the airport, on the plane (even when sleeping), on the train. Everyone speaking English in the host country—hey, I used to fly a lot to Asia, where I learned fun foreign tongues like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean!
But then it quickly felt very familiar too. Going out of my way to find (hopefully) authentic food spots? Check! Walk around town to learn your way around? Check! Locking myself out of my hotel room? Check!
I LOVED each and every part of it. Yes, even the locking out part!
But then, I am both an engineer and a businessman. And one idea kept on nagging me during this trip. Given that our business kept on humming while so many of us were grounded during the pandemic, what does it mean for the future of business travel? In other words, business travel is undoubtedly fun, but is it also profitable?
The Great Battle Of The Travel Expense Report: Are Business Trips Passé?
When asked about the future of business travel, people often have emotional responses. On the one hand, you have the "serious" crew that believes that all that travel was a poor excuse for party-going in the first place. As someone once told me, why go through the pain and cost to travel thousands of miles for a boring internal meeting when a Zoom will do?
And then you have the "travel tribe"—often professionals in customer-facing occupations like myself—that speak in almost metaphysical terms about business travel. They just don't believe a corporate world without business travel is sustainable.
Figuring out what science has to say about this is anything but easy. Queries on Google give you many more-or-less opinionated texts written by organizations that clearly have something to win or lose from a world with less or more business travel. Not astonishingly, remote conferencing system organizations believe virtual is usually better than in-person, while hotel chains believe the polar opposite.
Shocking, right? :)
However, it is still possible to find some more reliable data among all that noise. For example, an article from Vanderbilt University School Of Medicine explained that "Zoom fatigue" is a real thing. It turns out that the constant visual stimuli provided by video conferencing systems and constant context switching between several meetings addressing wildly different topics (something made easier by the nature of remote sessions) lead to less productive meetings.
Likewise, a study conducted by York University found that students expressed a clear preference for in-person classes, and not just because it is harder to keep your attention focused during a virtual meet. It turns out that people missed having their peers around, leading to decreased motivation levels and a feeling that part of the communication cues was missing from camera interaction.
That rings true. Sure, having crowds around made it more difficult for me to find a space in a restaurant in London, but I genuinely missed "the action."
But then, you also have strong arguments for not traveling. These online meetings may not be as fun, and they may not even be as efficient as the in-person kind, but they are easier to organize, cheaper to host, and not traveling means less CO2 in the atmosphere.
So, where does it leave us?
3D Relationships Make Colleagues "More Real"
For what it's worth, my experience in London (and later, in Copenhagen) confirms one thing: 3D relationships beat 2D ones, hands down.
Of course, I learned a few things about my colleagues via our numerous video conferences. We communicated reasonably well, and though that helped manage our business, it felt a bit dry. Impersonal. Perhaps even artificial, especially with many colleagues' fancy synthetic backgrounds.
Meeting many of them for the first time was an eye-opening experience. Suddenly, I could see others tangibly. Their height. The true color of their eyes. And learn about them on a much more personal level than before.
And in the weeks after I met them, I felt my relationships with them became easier and more fruitful. It just became easier to do business with them while remote.
Colleagues I talked to felt the same way. There was a sense of relief, even of joy, that came with the ability to meet face to face.
But was this almost metaphysical experience real? There is every reason to believe it was.
The fact is that humans aren't only communicating orally. There is what you say and how you look when you are saying it. How your hands move, the distance you keep from others while gathering, how your feet are positioned. All of these are part of the meta-message and convey information.
Try as it may, video conferences never quite make justice to that meta-communication. Instead, it always ends up lessened or even distorted.
Want proof? Don't you find it so much easier to know exactly when to jump into a conversation in person as opposed to during a large video conference?
My point exactly.
There is even research that shows that face-to-face communication enhances quality of life in a way that internet communication does not. And quality of life is undoubtedly part of the equation of employee satisfaction.
So, virtual conferences completely replacing real internal meetings? Until we have remote holograms à-la-Star Trek—and even then!—no, I don't think so.
Seeing In Person Is Believing - Gaining Trust With Clients
There is a say in French that goes like this: Loin des yeux, loin du coeur. Which loosely translates as "far from the eyes far from the heart."
It is definitely true in business. The cement of any commercial relationship is trust. You engage in business relying on the assumption that the other party will live to its obligations, whether it is orally expressed or formally written in a contract. Without trust between parties, the relationship becomes more difficult, if not impossible.
Can you build trust without ever meeting in person? Sure. People do this each time they phone a call center for service or order something on the internet. But isn't establishing trust harder this way? You bet!
Consider: B2C companies selling online often harp on things like "100% satisfaction guaranteed" and "free return - no questions asked." Why? Because they know they start with a significant disadvantage compared to physical B2C: it is harder for clients to trust them from the get-go. Building confidence under these conditions requires them to go the extra mile.
Transpose this to B2B, especially for enterprise sales, with deals involving thousands and millions of dollars. Both vendors and sellers desperately need to establish trust. They do this in multiple ways—including on-site visits.
Can't video calls do the same job? Not quite.
Perhaps because it is relatively easy to close one of these calls. One click of a button and the other is gone.
Perhaps because of what I would call a non-exclusive context—sure, you are on a call, but you are also simultaneously being relentlessly pinged in the chat window (always at the worst possible moment) while your email app begs for your attention!
Perhaps it is just because the relationship seems less real to participants—like I described in the previous part.
Client visits are a much more intimate affair. You are there, entirely devoted to one another. Exposed is another way to see it. If someone is happy—or not—it becomes much easier to see its meta-communication emanations than through a camera.
But then, didn't the economy's strength during the pandemic prove once and for all that client visits are a relic of the past, that video calls are all that is needed? I would argue that the economy lived on borrowed time. Many relationships were already existing and merely required to be maintained. Video conferences were successful because many a relationship only needed maintenance.
However, the longer people couldn't engage in person, the more deleterious effect of that lack of personal touch becomes apparent. New and enhanced relationships that would have been born in a world of regular business travel may have been delayed or lessened during the pandemic. Some may simply have never been born in the first place.
Does it matter? While the current woes in the value chain are undoubtedly due to many factors, perhaps some of the troubles we have today stem from people not meeting other people, resulting in a less dynamic and efficient economy.
Post-Pandemic Business Travel Will Be Optimized, Not Eliminated
So, it is pretty clear to me business travel won't disappear. None of the tech gadgets we used during the pandemic to keep companies and other organizations humming can adequately replace good old face-to-face meetings. So, people like me will still get to board planes, trains, and cars and roam the world as our ancestors did for thousands of years (albeit by foot, ships, and animal locomotion).
That doesn't mean that the pandemic won't change business travel—by optimizing it.
I saw colleagues do truly funny things in the past. For example, they booked inter-continental fares for a two or three-day journey to faraway lands. This always struck me as business-wise and environmentally wasteful, which is why I usually book full weeks when crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific and try to maximize the number of meetings.
New habits born from the pandemic will make such short-term hops even more difficult to justify. Because if online meetings aren't as efficient as face-to-face ones, they are still somewhat efficient—and thus can credibly replace some less critical travel activities.
Frequency can also be modulated according to real business needs. For example, not seeing a business partner for years isn't exactly the same as not seeing him or her for a few weeks.
Don't forget about the job market revolution created by all of the technological prowess we can now deploy. Companies used to fret about having remote employees. Not anymore: many understood that this gave them access to a much larger pool of talent they could ever fathom. But here, most of these companies will also discover (just like mine did long ago) that while remote work gives them an edge in recruiting, there is still a lot of value in bringing these people together from time to time. That will, ironically enough, increase business travel.
Our technological world was born out of our ability to communicate with each other and travel to see one another quickly. I would argue that it is no coincidence the IT revolution happened in the jet age. There is a need for all that travel, and there will always be—just witness the comeback of traditional trade shows and conferences. But like the phone decades ago, conferencing systems will change and optimize how we communicate, leading—hopefully—to even more collaboration and fantastic innovation in years to come.
Including—hopefully—less CO2 in the atmosphere as we roam the Earth.