Business travel – risky business?

Aug 22 2006 by John Blackwell Print This Article

The recent bedlam at airports in the aftermath of the possible terrorist plot in the UK has served to highlight how unpredictable and volatile life can be for today's air traveller. Yet beyond the personal stories of mayhem and disruption (and this is not seeking to minimise these), there is a massive and serious issue for businesses to address.

Two critical questions are how many organisations have risk mitigation scenarios to help maintain the effectiveness of these valuable resources - and how many provide sufficient support and agility for their increasingly mobile workforces?

To put the size of this into perspective, UK residents alone took over 7 million business trips by air in 2005. Three-quarters of these were to European destinations, with most being return trips in a single day.

The International Passenger Survey also served to debunk the myth that it's latter-day road warriors or nomadic sales taking these trips. According to their surveys, a sizable majority of these flights were taken by staff travelling to headquarter or satellite offices of their own organisations.

Looking to the future, conservative estimates suggest the volume of business air travel by UK residents will more than double to more than 16 million trips per year by 2020, further reinforcing the need for organisations to pay attention to the broad social and technical issues facing this crucial resource.

A recent JBA survey of mobile workers explored the rationales and motivations for travel, and served to illuminate some of the basic steps for organisations to enhance support for their itinerant staff, together with creating a culture where the habits and conventions of unnecessary travel can be challenged.

Motivations for travel

The overwhelming reason for travelling is cited as "the need for face time" – the perception that it's difficult to develop relationships with colleagues without face-to-face contact. Whilst this can clearly be a valid reason to travel, experience has shown it can all too easily morph into nothing more than habit.

Interestingly, while mobile workers are driven to travel because they need to maintain face-to-face contact with colleagues, over half of our study said that regular travel meant that "access to informal insights/ gossip" became a challenge. Four out of 10 also felt that this very travel regime makes it more difficult to hear about developments and opportunities and more likely that they will be left out of key meetings and decisions.

In an age where people regularly can – and do – form relationships, even leading to marriage, over the internet, it is strangely perverse that such dichotomies can persist in the workplace.

But whilst technology alternatives to travel are emerging with increasing frequency, the prevailing ethos in the business world for creating trust and commitment remains the 'in-person' mantra.

Consequently, it's clearly worth considering the steps that organisations can take to support their mobile workforces and to bolster the take-up of alternative communication tools.

Outcome-based performance measures

All too often managers struggle with evaluating individual performance and frequently resort to bland 'team' or function-based metrics. For remote or mobile staff, this is often more problematic simply because of the lack of visibility into how and when work in accomplished.

Organisations must develop precise objectives, so everyone knows what's going to be measured. Results-driven goals enhance the performance evaluation of staff, regardless of their location.

With clear measurements in place, remote workers can focus on achieving outcomes, rather than managing perceptions with their colleagues and managers – and organisations are invariably surprised at how much more work is done when employees are allowed to control and take responsibility for completing tasks.

Functional, reliable technology

To allow remote staff to focus on their tasks-at-hand, organisations must provide technology that's both reliable and transparent to the user. Overwhelming numbers in our study identified the need for more reliable infrastructure, making it abundantly clear they perceived their effectiveness is hampered by technology difficulties.

Mobile workers display a strong reliance on e-mail and phone, with far less frequent use of more advanced collaboration tools. However, these tools can make a real difference. For example, instant messaging can allow quick identification of who's available and enable electronic conversations without time delays associated with e-mail. Similarly, meeting technologies can enable a group to work simultaneously, making it possible to work in a real-time environment.

Lastly, videoconferencing – long perceived as expensive and bandwidth intensive – is now becoming ubiquitous and low-cost and can stimulate the critical face-to-face interactions that help groups work through difficult issues.

Skills and capabilities for a mobile world

Working remotely requires staff to rely on extended personal skills and capabilities to compensate for the lack of structure in a traditional office environment. Eight out of 10 mobile workers cited the importance of "being able to work independently", three-quarters highlighted "organising work tasks", and two-thirds cited the importance of "being able to collaborate in a remote environment".

Mobile workers face numerous distractions and difficulties in getting quick answers to potential work impediments, consequently structure and discipline are prerequisites for working outside of the office.

Formal training for both mobile workers and their managers is essential. A quarter of our study indicated that training would be among the top three ways to help remote workers, while nearly four out of 10 stated that managerial training is crucial.

Providing education on issues such as time sovereignty, virtual collaboration, setting goals and objectives, managing upwards, and avoiding burnout are beneficial to those new to the challenges of working and managing in a mobile environment.

Visible corporate and managerial support

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing mobile workers is one of acceptance, among both colleagues and the organisation as a whole. Only one in five of our study believe their companies truly advocate mobile working – a worrying figure given the unrelenting rise in the number of people working remotely. Most said that companies should recognise their contributions and trust that mobile workers are performing their jobs.

Given that mobile workers frequently overcompensate for their physical absence by working longer hours and making themselves more available to colleagues, managers and executives need to be conscious of the messages they are sending to these workers. Without creating a sense of trust and building a connection to the larger organisation, mobile workers can quickly become alienated and disengaged.

Our business worlds are increasingly volatile and unpredictable, be it disruptions from radical terror threats, from commercial peaks and troughs, or from other unforeseen external factors. Equally, because they both can and choose to, increasing numbers of our workforce will be working outside the traditional office construct.

So irrespective of company size or sector, it's crucial to grasp both the social and technological challenges of mobile work. Organisations must not only consider the interactions of technologies, measurement and career progression factors, but also how it effects connection and trust with colleagues and the organisation as a whole.

Because without a sense of trust, our workforces will continue to travel in ever-increasing numbers and this will only perpetuate, rather than mitigate, the associated risks.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.