I used to travel for work more than half the time. It can be exhausting, but also thrilling, and even addictive. The idea of touching down in places all over the world for meetings and conferences brings excitement.
COVID-19 changed that. Just like people all over the world, I was suddenly grounded.
In 2022, business travelers returned to the skies. Now, some businesses may be pulling back on travel amid signs of a slowing economy.
While often portrayed as an economic issue, with less travel signaling a worsening time for business, there’s a whole other side to this. Businesses should cut back on work travel for a crucial reason: tackling climate change.
Emissions from airplanes are astronomical and rising faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted. Work travel is blamed for an estimated 2% of global greenhouse emissions. According to myclimate.org, a single roundtrip economy ticket between San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and LaGuardia adds 1.4 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Business class or first class seats, which account for a lot of business travel, add tons more per trip. Given that my work these days focuses on wellness, I’m especially conscious of environmental effects on both physical and mental health.
Greener aviation technology is apparently on the way, and the Inflation Reduction Act includes steps to address this need. Still, there’s no sign that it will become widely available anytime soon.
For now, the solution is for all of us to cut back on business travel–and we can do this without sacrificing the benefits of face time in different markets.
Surveys suggest that meeting with clients or customers is often the biggest reason for business travel. Some deals are still done best on the ground, shaking hands. And it often helps to show multiple clients in a market that your company takes their business so seriously that you want to come for a visit.
However, much of this can also be done remotely now. Clients and customers are happy to participate in video meetings to build relationships. Business leaders can also put even more trust in our own representatives in various markets to help make clear the company’s commitment to serving the region.
In fact, given that many people around the world now work from home, I have found that even when I travel, some clients in the markets I’m visiting still prefer to meet by video. It helps to gauge whether clients really want to meet in person and use travel time to pack in as many meetings with these clients as possible.
I also oversee employees across the world. It’s important to build relationships with them. Traditionally, I relied on visits to offices to help make this happen. The casual, informal conversations that arise in person can lead to all sorts of benefits, breaking down walls and helping people really get to know each other.
But I’ve developed a new way of building these kinds of relationships remotely as well. I hold informal video meetings with groups of only about 10 people. I keep these meetings light, encouraging people to be their “true selves.” The responses have been fantastic.
Even still, there are things you can only learn in the office. For example, it helps to observe the dynamics and work patterns in a satellite office that can be improved. Part of my job is helping the team address those problems, so I use travel time to maximize that.
After any trip, I create an action plan for the market that people on the ground can carry out. This helps make sure the visit’s impact has longevity and provides reference points that I can follow up on without needing to visit again quickly.
To be sure, there are economic benefits to an increased pace of business travel. A Harvard study shows it sparks economic growth. Some cities depend heavily on it, as does the tourism industry. Where the cutback in business travel comes as a blow, communities may need to adjust. They might invest less in airports and hotels, and more in building green energy infrastructure, which creates jobs.
Eventually, when environmentally friendly fuels and aircraft are available, business leaders can take to the “friendly skies” in greater numbers again.
Carolee Gearhart is the chief revenue officer at Gympass.
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