The new normal that COVID has imposed on us is getting many executives asking: “How can I be leading a business remotely and still deliver results?”.
While business travel, whether locally to the office or internationally to meet clients or visit international offices, has always provided a communication environment that cannot easily be achieved otherwise, travel is undeniably no longer as accessible as ever.
Luckily, there are effective ways to keep achieving business objectives despite the limited travel options available.
In this article, I share my perspective on how you can make the best use of your office with little travel, how you can lead a team remotely, and how you can determine if your journey is really necessary. I also let you in on my personal experience with business travel during COVID and why I HAD to make the trip from Birmingham to Frankfurt.
Getting the most out of your office
Isn’t business travel just an extreme version of traveling to the office?
Why not ask yourself exactly the same questions you do when traveling abroad? Is it really necessary to go into the office? What will I accomplish by going into the office that I couldn’t through the alternatives?
Cost is one of the more obvious considerations when deciding whether working from the office is worth it. Here, we speak not just of rent and associated costs of keeping the office running, but also the cost it puts on your staff, such as commuting fares and childcare. In a survey of 3500 global remote workers, the biggest benefit of working from home, according to 21% of employees, is actually not having to commute. Of course, the cost of commuting was one of the reasons for this preference.
At face value, it would seem that less travel time, and perhaps less time socialising with co-workers in the office, means potentially more hours available to work. This, however, ignores your team’s home working set-up. Are they constantly interrupted? Do they have to look after, or even home-school, children? Is there more than one person in the household trying to carry on business phone calls in a relatively small space? Your team might need some tips on managing distractions which you can find in this article by techrepublic.
It’s also one of the most fundamental aspects of leading a business that people act as a team. The social interactions and the informal communications that take place in an office can be a vital component of teamwork. You might be surprised how big a role non-verbal cues play in communication. The people at lifesize, (who, by the way, offer smart video conferencing solutions), cite that 70-93% of all communication is non-verbal, adding to the importance of actually seeing the person you are talking to. In these times, you all probably acknowledge the importance of face-to-face communication in leading a business, but if you’re still skeptic, the people at work.life does a great job conveying it.
So, how do I get the most out of my office?
A hybrid solution is what we recommend at Prescient. This is how we do things ourselves and what we advise our clients to do while leading a business. Making employees come into the office no longer creates maximum productivity and cost-efficiency. A study performed by LEK has shown that after 4 months of working from home, 64% of employees want to continue working at home or find a new mix that includes more working from home than before.
However, letting go of the office would not be wise given the challenges work from home presents, leading a substantial chunk of people actually to prefer working from an office. That is why it is key that you try to make the best use of your office when you have employees coming in. Try having staff working from home as the default position, but bring them in on a planned basis for specific days, events or activities – with the relevant social distancing and risk assessments in place, of course. That would be the so-called “purposeful visit to the office”. Of course, keep in mind the government advice and regulations in operation at the time.
Is your journey really necessary?
This was a WWII slogan on the railways to encourage people to free up the railways for the transportation of vital supplies. However, it is just as relevant in these ‘COVID times’.
As safe as you can make it, travelling outside of your home office inevitably increases the risk of spreading COVID – so if you don’t need to travel, don’t travel. Sounds simple, of course, but it’s actually an entirely valid exercise to consider the reasons for business travel even without the pandemic considerations. What do you accomplish from business travel that you couldn’t get from the alternatives?
I’ve always been a fan of face-to-face meetings and I still am; I’m just more selective about when to do it. There are situations where we can’t get the communication cues we need from a video call and being able to look someone in the eye and assess the whole environment creates a whole different experience.
If you’re making a really big sales pitch or trying to convince a funder to back you, then you need your communication bandwidth at maximum.
If you’re making that pitch as a team, then you will want the team dynamic to be as good as possible. Lots of interaction, eye contact, and positive reinforcement of your points through your team-mates’ body language.
Surprisingly (for me at least), only 13% of corporate travel managers actively measure trip success rate and trip ROI, according to an ACTE study cited on Travelperk. This means executives allow for money and time to be spent on travel without knowing if the trip itself had a positive impact on efficiency. If you have not been measuring travel ROI, there is a big chance that your company has been amplifying its travel budget and shedding productive time with little in return.
Keep an eye out for the real reason behind travel. Many business meetings are more for routine communication and this is your opportunity to prune your travel budget and cut out that dead travel time.
Leading a team without travel
I’ve been asked this by several organisations – how do you manage teams without being able to visit them or without the teams themselves being able to get together?
The answer can come across as a bit “smart”…and not in the good way! It actually comes down to the basics of how to lead and manage people. Communication, motivation, clear objectives, regular and objective performance measurement, and the well-being of your team members are the main concepts that you should be focusing on.
At Prescient, we do a lot of work around communication and the need for it to be regular, with clear and concise messaging. Weekly or monthly calls with the whole team or whole company are essential -probably done using video – so that everyone can see their CEO or business leader, and they have the opportunity to ask questions. Employees need to hear about how their company is doing to build a sense of involvement and motivation, so make sure you don’t skip regular business updates when you are leading a business remotely.
Maintain your KPIs
Good, solid, KPI’s are another ‘must’, and they have to be aligned to the overall business aims. The trick here is not to have too many of them and to make them easy to report and easy for everyone to understand. This article by Hubstaff can help you dive more into the world of KPIs and they even include real examples of how remote companies are approaching productivity tracking while leading a business.
The focus on well-being is extremely important, especially as you can’t see your staff every day so may not notice subtle changes in mood or behaviour. The regular chat – and this is different from the regular run-through of KPI’s – is essential. We have also done more formal anonymous employee engagement surveys to judge employee sentiment on a wider scale.
My experience with business travel during COVID…should I have gone at all?
I had an important day of investor presentations to deliver recently and the meetings were set for a neutral venue in Frankfurt. I flew from Heathrow to Frankfurt (a journey I’ve done many times before) on the early morning Lufthansa flight – meaning I had to get up at 3.30 am
The key to a successful travel experience is the same as it is for a successful meeting: preparation and planning.
Lufthansa has done an excellent job on their website of explaining how they’re going to ensure your safety, and of walking you through the experience at Frankfurt airport. This is a great general business example of allaying customers’ fears simply and concisely and you should look at it just for that, even if you’re not traveling with them.
There seemed to be fewer people at Frankfurt airport than at Heathrow, but mask-wearing was the order of the day at both. Social distancing wasn’t that great at either airport, particularly when queuing to board the flight. On the plane, it’s not too bad once everyone is sitting down, although depending on where you’re sitting, you have everyone filing past you to their seats. Masks must be worn through the flight, unless eating or drinking, obviously.
I stayed at a small hotel, and again, social distancing was not the best, but at least masks were worn by most people.
So, was it worth the trip? Well, yes and no! The team dynamic in the room was outstanding and it was so much better to be looking at and talking to real people. However, of the four scheduled meetings, only one group of investors actually attended in person, so it turned out that the day could have been done by video after all.
Do I want to travel again in the near future?
I’ll be perfectly honest – getting on planes and travelling for business has been such a part of my world for so long that I was secretly pleased that I had to travel for that important meeting in Frankfurt. Another part of me was apprehensive about the health risks. But the lasting feeling was that I needed to re-evaluate my travel habits and to question more closely the need to travel.
All business habits need questioning from time to time, and business travel is no exception. COVID has certainly caused me to think more deeply about the objectives and benefits I am seeking to achieve by traveling anywhere on business, whether out of the country or simply to my Birmingham office.
Leading a business remotely is not a recipe for failure. On the contrary, 2020 has brought forward numerous examples of businesses performing very well, in many cases with increased efficiency, while their teams worked from home.
- Make sure you use your office time wisely, tightening the team relationships that remote work seems to wash away.
- Always evaluate the need for travel, whether you are flying for an internal team meeting or meeting a client.
- Focus on the core business concepts like communicating clearly and setting KPIs, and don’t ignore your employees’ mental health.
What permanent changes will you make to your travel habits in the future? Let us know in the comments section.