An almost universal feature of business today is the ever decreasing travel budget. No longer can the busy executive count on business class travel to ease the pain of being away from home; increasingly we turn right on entry to the plane and start the long journey towards the back of the aircraft. Where once we saw a life of glamour, we now see a future of long waits in overcrowded airport terminals and ever smaller seats. Business travel is no longer seen as a perk but a necessary evil.If we accept, that with a few exceptions, business travel is something to be avoided how then do we – the smart travellers – ensure we only do those trips we absolutely have to?
Technology is our ally. With every passing month we acquire new technology that helps us in our quest not to travel; indeed, I can now video-conference on a one-to-one basis from my laptop. I can share documents during a web conference, I can hold a multi-site video conference, and I can now do most of this remotely from my place of work bringing about the possibility of being in two places at once. This means I can now be more selective about when I travel.
The questions I ask myself and the reasons I use are:
1. Will I have an opportunity to increase the pace at which I build both internal and external relationships by being physically present?
2. The organisation is going through a difficult or complex change process and you want to make yourself available through the change (also a probable yes).
3. I need to build my team’s capabilities both as individuals and as a team (hard to do effectively entirely remotely, e-learning tools help but time together is also important).
4. Local culture still values the personal touch (anyone working with Chinese companies knows that you only get their attention once they have had an opportunity to build a relationship).
5. I need to deliver bad news (best done face to face even though this is invariably harder for the person bearing the bad news). A word of caution here, don’t only travel when you have bad news, it won’t take long before your presence takes on the aura of the grim reaper.
The most productive trips are when we manage to incorporate a number of the above in a single trip.
The questions that always yield a ‘no need to travel’ are:
1. Can I productively attend by conference call or through the use of other technology?
2. I need to conduct a one-to-one (technology means you can do this effectively remotely. I believe it is more productive to have regular communications remotely than to wait four months until you see someone in person).
3. I am attending a single meeting. (Think long and hard on this one).
4. Everyone else is travelling (good for them, they obviously have less pressure on their budget, better to save your money for trips that yield greater returns).
5. My boss will be there (most value savings rather than sycophancy).
It‘s tricky working out when to travel and when to use technology. If you start from the viewpoint of preferring not to travel then you are more likely to get the balance right, providing you reflect on the benefits the organisation will get from your physical presence.
It is up to us to ensure we use our time effectively.
Sam Covell is head of IS procurement at AstraZeneca