James' view | What is business travel for?: culture and employee experience

By James Parkhouse, CEO, Capita Travel and Events

What is business travel for?

What is Business Travel for? It’s a nice short question, but the answer isn’t as short and deserves some detailing. We don’t travel and meet for business as an end in itself, it’s the catalyst for something else. We are an intermediary, enabling something else to happen - and the role of any intermediary is to facilitate, aggregate, match and generate trust between the provider of these services and the person who wants or needs to use them.

So, when trying to answer the question of what it is for, we must look at what is being brought together through travelling and meeting for business. It is fair to say, that one of the things that we have learned from the pandemic is that a common view of the business traveller involves some combination of business-class travel, expensive accommodation in a large metropolis and ‘deal-making' in one form or other. This characterisation only covers a fraction of what travelling and meeting for business looks like across roles, organisations and industries.

The recent campaign by the Business Travel Association (BTA) on the ‘Faces of Business Travel’ is an important corrective to this and highlights the reality of how multi-faceted travelling for work, which is what business travel actually is. Business travel is far more than the typical stereotype any of us have pictured in our heads. It’s about teamwork, collaboration, in-person connectivity and much more - across industries, sectors and cultures. Over the next few articles, I intend to try and answer what business travel is for, by highlighting where it adds value to a work environment in 3 contexts.

Building culture and employee experience

Building and maintaining connections and social capital

Collaboration, creativity, choice, and empowerment

By the end of this short series, I hope that we are a little closer to understanding what business travel is for and why it matters.

The importance of in-person connections: Building culture and employee experience

Since lockdown began, people have been working, on average, 48 minutes longer every day and attending 13% more meetings[1]. Both trends have had a significant decline in employee engagement.

Cutting face-to-face engagement has clearly reduced travel costs but to the detriment of culture and employee experience.

Culture is how things are done in a specific business by its people and is a priceless part of a companies’ identity that has been put at risk during Covid-19. Organisational culture brings colleagues together, so with a quarter of UK employees predicted to wind up working from home for good - post-Covid, many company cultures are changing.

The in-person experience of work

Productivity and the human experience of work are interlinked. Both rely on psychological and emotional wellbeing. Employee loyalty becomes strained without social interactions, and employees can lack a sense of belonging. Some research even suggests that 60% of employees (virtual or not) don’t know what their company stands for, understand the direction their company is going and feel distanced by the change. [2]

Whilst some employees may prefer long-term remote working, opportunities for relationship-building at work are diminished and the employee’s sense of purpose is weakened. Employees who work remotely from their managers are less likely to feel; cared about at work, recognised for their contributions or their opinions don’t count. Reduced visibility could even damage career advancement if many of these statistics are accurate.

High engagement = high performance

Employee engagement enables optimal performance, but employee engagement is not sustainable with 100% remote working. Amongst those who prefer office-based working, remote working can reduce productivity by 17%.[3]

Virtual workers become disconnected from the core elements of company culture because the virtual experience is so different to what used to make their work experience engaging. And when employees are not fully aligned with what their company stands for, or what direction it’s heading in then brand reputation and loyalty is at stake.

Many organisations are not ready to be fully virtual. Effective virtual working requires high levels of trust and a style of leadership and management that is diametrically different to the pre-Covid norm.

Performance management is a major challenge; Yahoo ended remote working because performance management practices were outdated. IBM and others have also abandoned virtual working as a must after concluding the benefits of in-person collaboration were too valuable - and the risks inherent in virtual working - too great.

Of course, it’s important to take a balanced view. There is no denying that virtual working is here to stay and does have its benefits. Remote workers tend to have more autonomy over their work and are 15% more likely to feel they can focus on what they do best, every day [4]. But equally, its limitations should not be ignored.

We are helping our customers to take positive steps to create smarter and effective business connections. This starts with understanding how remote working impacts organisational culture, whether it works for everyone and if there is a hybrid style solution.

The challenge for employers is to maximise the benefits and mitigate the risks of remote working. By closely measuring performance drivers, combined with data-driven insights to monitor employee experience, culture change, health and wellbeing, and work-life balance - then a mix of virtual and in-person interactions can thrive in any work environment.

In my next article, I’ll discuss how business travel and meetings are used to build and maintain connections and social capital.

[1] US National Bureau of Economic Research

[2] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/317753/remote-work-virtual-threat-culture.aspx

[3] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/317753/remote-work-virtual-threat-culture.aspx

[4] Ibid