With more and more Americans testing positive for Covid-19, and with the first (Pfizer-BioNTech) vaccine already rolling out, we’re likely approaching the final stages of the pandemic. But are we all going to go right back to normal, how things were before?
I used to fly to DC once or twice a month for work, on top of numerous other business trips. Someone at American Airlines asked me last week about requalifying for Executive Platinum status in 2021. Even with reduced requirements, I don’t know if that’s in the cards. I’ve always earned elite status on domestic business trips, redeeming my miles for international premium cabin vacations.
With business travel not likely in the first half of the year, and probably not returning to the way it used to be afterward, reduced requirements probably aren’t enough for me to re-earn my status in 2021. But even after that, I wonder if my business travel will ever be the same. For all of the terrible things 2020 has wrought, I’ve appreciated being home for dinner with my daughter every night.
It will take time before large convention-style events come back. Those will be last to return. And you’ve not going to visit people in their offices when they’re working from home. And if they’re only returning to the office a couple of days per week, and you need to meet with more than one person, they need to be in the office the same day. That’s a coordination problem that depresses business travel. And if people aren’t working from the office, remote workers won’t travel there regularly to check in.
Now that everyone uses Zoom (and Microsoft Teams – ugh) remote work is better than it used to be. People coming into a meeting by video that’s happening in person used to be second class attendees They were an afterthought. Now meetings are optimized for remote participation. You’ll see even people working from an office doing meetings from their own offices rather than a conference room.
Mostly though for a large subset of white collar workers work from home simply works better. A correspondent at Marginal Revolution makes the case against business travel,
[T]he productivity gains for our highest value workers has been immense. The typical time-sucks and distractions of in-office work have been eliminated, as have their personal time investments like physically visiting the grocery store or running errands. Mental focus on productive efforts is near constant.
Perhaps most importantly, work *travel* is not happening. Valuable collaborations with colleagues, customers, regulators or other partner companies aren’t delayed by the vagaries of the various groups’ availability to meet in person, navigating being in different cities, flights, hotels, etc. Collaboration happens as soon as you have the idea to meet via Zoom. And a lot *more* collaboration happens as a result. It may be lower productivity collaboration than meeting in person around a whiteboard (maybe), but the sheer quantity of it means on net there’s perhaps been a boom in cross-pollination of ideas.
Not to mention all of the wasted productivity time that work travel eats up by putting high value workers in low productivity transit mode….Uber to airport, security lines, wait for flight in the terminal, maybe grab an hour of in-flight WiFi to catch up on email, land, taxi on the airstrip for 20 minutes, Uber to hotel…is completely gone from our lives.
In general, I think we drastically overrate the value of work travel.
There is value in in-person interaction but not all interaction needs to be in-person, and certainly not for everyone. This doesn’t mean all jobs can be done remotely, but the increase in remote work will be a drag on business travel and the people most likely to do business travel are the ones most likely to be able to work remotely.
Many companies need some in-person engagement to foster their culture and implicit norms. They may bring workers in from disparate places to visit their headquarters or for group events and team-building. Internal company conferences could become big, and drive some business travel, but maybe that’s once or twice a year not remote workers flying to headquarters every month.
There’s the possibility that remote workers travel more for leisure, but families will still be bounded by school schedules. Most families still send their kids to public schools, and Zoom School hasn’t worked well. Even so this is low yield leisure travel, not lucrative business travel for the airlines.
Will you go back to normal business travel once we’re through the pandemic?