Striking the balance between catching a flight and avoiding in-person contact can be challenging. Patrick Gray outlines three situations where business travel is necessary.

businesswoman checking her phone in an airport.
Image: Adobe Stock

Judging by the crowds of Tumi-bearing individuals and crowded frequent traveler lounges, business travel has returned in a big way. Desolate airports have once again become obstacle courses of humans, suitcases, and the occasional golf cart ferrying a delayed traveler at significant risk to the surrounding mass of humanity. One could be forgiven for forgetting the world is still recovering from the COVID pandemic, save for the occasional masked individual in the airport and lingering testing requirements.

As a recovering travelholic, it has been a significant challenge to recalibrate my personal tolerance for travel and the expectation I set with my teams and leadership. In 2019, I took over 140 flights for work and spent a similar number of nights in hotels, away from my family and home. In 2020, I took all of four flights and quickly grew to love the simple pleasures of being around when my children returned from school or cooking dinner on a weekday night.

With restrictions lifting around the globe, I’ve been traveling more for work and attempting to establish the criteria for when I jump on the plane to meet with colleagues. Here are the three criteria I’ve found for determining when it makes sense to incur the expense and physical and mental tolls of riding a metal tube around the world:

1. Meeting new people or teams

One problematic dynamic of remote-first workplaces is establishing an interpersonal relationship with someone you’ve only seen on a screen. While there’s a certain benefit to seeing people in their environment along with the occasional appearance of family and pets, it isn’t easy to have non-work-related interactions over a scheduled videoconference.

Meeting a new employee, team member, or group allows you to have these interpersonal moments between meetings, during meals, and all the small times in between. You’ll get to share stories, a handshake, and perhaps hear details about that person’s life that would be difficult to share in a virtual context.

Aside from the joys and feeling of connection we get from interacting with other humans, you’ll likely find that you can better collaborate with those individuals after meeting them in person. Not only will you have a richer view of their life and personality, but you’ll better understand how to collaborate and communicate and make your work together more effective.

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2. Strategy development

Most people have found that idea generation is challenging over a video conference. You’ve likely experienced the drifting gazes and lack of attention that arrives after 60-90 minutes when attempting to perform intense brainstorming via video.

Assembling a team in-person to collaborate and co-create is a highly effective use of in-person time. A couple of days together can replace weeks of half-focused remote collaboration. However, make sure you’re using the in-person time well and focused on solving hard problems or developing new strategies, rather than planning and execution-focused activities. The latter can usually be performed well remotely, and you risk losing the value of assembling people in the same space if you stray too far away from synthesis and into planning.

3. Onboarding

Some in-person time is precious, whether you’re bringing new people into your company or recently joined a new company. It’s incredible how much of company culture is transmitted through simple things like trading stories about past projects, challenges, or happenings within the company.

This storytelling is hard to replicate in a virtual environment and is critical for understanding a company’s culture and unwritten rules. Perhaps one of the most challenging outcomes of the global pandemic was onboarding new employees without any interpersonal interaction. Most companies quickly figured out how to send out laptops and perform the required logistics, and some even created elaborate virtual training programs. However, most people I’ve spoken with who struggle to feel a connection with their employer and their peers went through virtual onboarding.

While it may be difficult to redo onboarding, especially for people that have been on the payroll for over a year, encouraging in-person mentoring and informal storytelling sessions can make up for lost time without requiring excessive travel or disruption.

SEE: Remote hiring: How to hire new talent safely and efficiently (TechRepublic)

A chance to reexamine business travel

Like many, I was excited to meet new colleagues, see project sites, and spend time in the same space building out my team’s strategy as pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. However, I’m also loath to return to the days of weekly travel and hopping on a plane merely to see and be seen. Perhaps the most crucial consideration for meeting in person is being deliberate and thoughtful to maximize that time together and balance it with the tasks that are effective when working remotely.