By Dave MacLeod, CEO of ThoughtExchange.com and the author of Scaling Conversations.
Official estimates vary on how much business travel decreased during the pandemic and what it might look like after the pandemic is over. But one thing everyone agrees on is that during the early stages of the pandemic almost all forms of travel stopped — and now it’s likely that we will travel for business a whole lot less.
Some studies are projecting post-pandemic business travel will be cut back between 30% and 50%. On one hand, this is great for our impending climate crisis. Yet it raises the question: How does this impact our respective businesses?
Most of us have traveled in recent years and are aware of the dramatic carbon increase that is at least partially attributed to human travel in recent decades. According to leaders such as Bill Gates, the massive negative environmental repercussions associated with increased carbon are expected to be far worse than the tragedies of Covid-19 in terms of loss of life and economic hardship.
Despite the science, businesses everywhere were unwilling to address their dependence on travel to provide face-to-face interactions for organizational alignment and relationship building. Running big sales kickoffs, attending conferences, closing business with signing ceremonies and handshakes were deemed too important to curb travel and reduce our carbon footprint. Rather than change behavior, responsible businesses everywhere — including ThoughtExchange — began investing in balance.
Prior to the pandemic, many companies chose to invest in the now-familiar concept of carbon offsets. To hold the line for the carbon emissions caused by our businesses, we invested in a tree-like construct that absorbs the same amount of carbon created by the aircraft hurtling us around our planet. This is sound thinking, as long as you assume the current state of our approach to the environment is optimized and sustainable. Unfortunately, it is not — but at least businesses saw carbon as a problem and explored ways to address it.
However, with the lack of travel — both business and personal — during the peak of the pandemic, we famously saw the first year-over-year carbon reduction decrease ever. While it was not much of a decrease, it was a decrease nevertheless and clearly displayed the impact the human species has on the environment. My hope is that this success in exposing our faults will be the minimum viable product (MVP) that allows us all to iterate and crack this problem — before the problem cracks us. But while the positive impact on our planet is measurable in hindsight, so too will the negative impact be on our businesses if we don’t act.
While jets produced harmful carbon trails across the sky, travel itself had positive impacts — similar to the root system of a forest. As we flew around and hosted events, met with people, created connections and solved problems, we also created strong relationships with our customers, employees and communities. Those bonds — roots — we had established with customers and co-workers went a long way to ensure the pandemic didn’t bankrupt us all.
Now, as we dare to dream on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, executives are planning enormous reductions in travel and events and even in office space, and are in many cases planning to deliver most or all of the associated savings to the bottom line. Unfortunately, this idea contains an inconvenient truth similar to the carbon crisis. However, these changes bring up several important questions:
• By not traveling, or traveling half as much, what are the unseen impacts that will accumulate and ultimately could destroy our relationships with our customers and employees?
• What is our current base connectivity with other humans, and what happens when we decrease it further without the ability to meet as often or ever?
• How strong are our relationships with our colleagues and customers?
Connectivity between humans is complex. It is less like a point-to-point connection and more like a nuanced network of independent threads that intertwine differently for each individual in ways that are impossible to completely articulate. Connections between people and organizations as a whole are similar. When we share our thoughts, time and space with one another we — as colleagues and customers — strengthen the connective tissue of our businesses.
Travel Reduction Offset
With much of travel now decreased by an unknown amount for an unknown length of time — and possibly permanently — what is your organization doing to offset the lack of connection gained over business meals and around boardroom tables? I can say with confidence that more video meetings is not the answer. Why? Investing in telepresence to offset a lack of connectivity is akin to investing in advertising to offset carbon emissions. Web meetings don’t necessarily do anything. They are just telepresence. They can worsen real human connectivity as easily as they can improve it.
The real connectivity layer is in how we relate to one another, how we converse, how we challenge one another with our thinking and our intellect, and how we exchange ideas and expand our world view. As a species, our ability to collaborate with one another across kin groups was our advantage and it relied on our development of language, not eyesight.
As we look to replace in-person conferences and kickoffs with new ways to maintain alignment, we need to ask ourselves: How can we find new ways to empathize and connect together digitally? How can we virtually create deep, human interactions that spark emotion, challenge worldviews and allow people to know they are not alone if they think a little bit differently?
As we aim to achieve balance and momentum in newly distributed and hybrid work environments, we need to work to intentionally increase the collective intelligence of our organizations by breaking down unproductive patterns of thought and replacing them with possibility and fresh insight. The only offset for connection is creating new pathways to connect.
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