The Road Back: Smarter human connections will drive the imminent recovery of UK business travel

By James Parkhouse, CEO, Capita Travel and Events


Where are we and what do we know

If Bill Gates' prediction on that over 50% of business travel [1] and 30% of days in the office will disappear in the wake of Covid-19 proves correct, the pandemic will have cut the size of the sector by more than £500 billion ($700 billion) from 2019 levels.


We don’t yet know whether those numbers spell good, bad or indifferent news for the UK economy. To answer that question, we need to better understand how much of business travel, meetings and time in an office before the pandemic contributed to economic vitality and growth.


What is clear is that some pre-existing trends have been accelerated, including working from home, virtual meeting tool adoption, non-essential travel avoidance, traveller wellbeing and mental health. The genie is irrevocably out of the bottle.


Covid-19 has re-focussed corporate minds on duty of care and cost control and business travel, meetings and events are all now looked at through the lens of how they have been impacted by the pandemic.


The up-front cost and time savings afforded by virtual engagement are incontrovertible, although the impact of less face-to-face time with customers, business partners and colleagues on revenues are less clear cut. Either way, businesses must balance digital and face-to-face engagement to optimise employee health, productivity and profitability.


Controls on travel

Strict controls on all travel remain in place. Hotel quarantine for certain countries, a patchwork of international regulations and heavier bureaucracy for travel within the EU are suppressing demand and - in some cases - may continue after Covid-19 restrictions ease.


Despite the vaccine rollout, travel between England, Scotland and Wales remains restricted but there is a willingness to travel. 60% of companies have already or plan to re-start non-essential travel in the next eight months. [2]


Essential workers and travel

At Capita Travel and Events, we have seen many companies re-shape their policies around essential workers and travel during the pandemic.


We have helped maintain human connections by enabling post offices to stay open in the highlands and organising ferry bookings for telecom engineers so they can carry out essential maintenance on the Isle of Mull.


We arranged accommodation for East of England Ambulance Service staff and Welsh Ambulance Service paramedics attending training. We arranged travel for logistics firms to help them deliver ventilators to the NHS.


Lessons of lockdown

Lockdown has demonstrated there can be health, social and productivity benefits of reduced travel. Employers will now come under pressure to combine time and office-related cost savings with a better employee work/life balance and an improved understanding of why and how we travel.


Travellers need to adjust travel plans easily and without financial penalty, whilst travel managers must decide when traveling for work is essential and what tools and policies will support an ever-changing landscape.


Lockdown has propelled sustainability and corporate social responsibility to the forefront of corporate thinking. Some companies have even presented travel reductions as environmental initiatives.


The biggest lesson of the pandemic, however, is that people want to travel and meet when it is safe to do so, especially to maintain essential face-to-face human connections.


Importance of human connections in 2021



As the charts show, the importance of business travel to company success remains un-dimmed by the pandemic. Business growth and revenue generation remains the principal reason for business travel. [3]


The problem is that, historically, organisations have struggled to quantify the value of travel as an enabler of growth. It is easier to focus the cost but harder to tangibly measure the effectiveness of business travel. This is often due to a lack of understanding around why someone has travelled. Did the traveller’s role require emotional connection to build a relationship, or did the collaboration have to take place face-to-face?


Although UK finance heads anticipate a five-fold increase in remote working by 2025 [4], many recognise that sales pitches, collaborative team meetings or customer reviews rarely have the same impact virtually as they do face-to-face. [5]


Is remote working sustainable?

Remote working is here to stay. A third of UK workers do not want to return to the offices, whilst 48% expect their employers to expand remote working post-pandemic. [6]


With remote working estimated to improve company productivity by up to 13% [7], business is moving towards a hybrid model in which the focus should be on where workers need to be to do their jobs well. The type of work should determine whether that’s face-to-face or virtual.


Virtual meeting adoption is at record levels, but the World Health Organisation has highlighted ‘Zoom burnout’ as a major impediment to mental and physical health.


Most organisations are not ready to be 100% virtual as this requires a level of trust and management disciplines that cannot be created or sustained remotely. To be productive, organisations must explore rather than exploit.


That’s why our role is to help businesses understand how to maximise the benefits of remote working, without detriment to profitability, performance and productivity.


This is not a consequence of the pandemic; we have been doing this for years through our approach to helping organisations make decisions on spending money on travel and meetings only when it added value to their businesses.


Smarter business connections

To enjoy the best of digital and face-to-face, virtual and hybrid solutions need to be integrated within policies that maximise productivity through human connections. We believe there are five factors that enable these smarter connections.

  • Culture and employee experience

  • Social and relationship capital

  • Collaboration and creativity

  • Choice and empowerment

  • Costs and benefits

Ultimately, everything in corporate life comes down to profit, performance and planet, so it is tempting to see remote working as a panacea for all of these. However, employers need to consider costs and productivity. Better communication and collaboration can increase productivity by 25-35%.[8]


Lack of visibility

Hidden human costs are abstract from financial savings. Incremental productivity from remote working may be impossible to sustain because long-term remote working decreases opportunities for critical relationship-building. 64% of UK workers feel invisible within their organisations and have suffered a productivity drop since working remotely.[9]


The cost of not travelling must also be considered. From the hard cost of overrunning projects and deploying staff on those projects to lost opportunities, missed revenue and frustration, we are working with our customers to develop models that can bring visibility where none currently exists.[10]


Social capital, company culture and employee experience

Social capital is who you know and how well you know people. Humans are social beings, so although we have become used to virtual, it’s detachment from familiar in-person interaction means it is still sometimes weird and inauthentic.


It can make us less effective at collaborating, thereby storing up long term productivity problems. Put simply – it is life in 2D when we want life in 3D.


Organisations need to consider how social capital will be depleted without face-to-face, and how it can be replenished. Office closures and remote working following the first lockdown was only achieved with the support of social connections nurtured (primarily F2F) over many years. This stock of capital will diminish over time and will need to be replenished


Collaboration and creativity

Creative work often needs to be carried out face-to-face, even in organisations that believe creativity has a more limited role within their business. Creativity is not just what R&D or product development teams do; creative problem solving is part of most job roles and there is always room for innovation.


Enabling smarter business connections enhances stakeholder engagement. Creativity, complex communication and critical thinking are where face-to-face comes into its own. This is what makes us human and why we should travel.


It’s the little things that count

Not every human interaction takes place in a formal meeting. Hundreds of spontaneous, unplanned get togethers take place every day around the coffee machine, water cooler or impromptu passing in the corridor. We miss these interactions the most and they cannot be replicated by virtual.


Even then, physical proximity does not equate to connectedness. ‘Closeness’ – healthy social connectedness – is about relationships, shared experiences and identities as much as physical proximity. Closeness comes from shared values, trust, human integrity and correlates with performance.


Why recovery will be domestic first

Source: McKinsey - travel managers’ predictions for when business travel will resume


Although the UK economy is unlikely to recover fully for some time [11] a key driver of recovery is interconnectivity amongst towns, cities and throughout the UK, enabling essential business and hospitality to take place.


The rate of business travel’s recovery will vary by industry sector, reasons for travel and proximity of trip destination. Although it could take up to four years for the spend levels to recover to those seen pre-pandemic.[12]


International experiences from countries that have eased restrictions alongside a basic understanding of human behaviour prove that people are more prepared to travel shorter distances than internationally – it is a ripple effect with the ripples emanating outwards from local to regional to global.


We anticipate that domestic travel will return quickly to support the UK economy once restrictions begin to lift, providing there’s the right combination of flexible travel policies, traveller tools, integrated digital/face-to-face solutions and focus on traveller safety.


Is Britain ready and how safe is it?

Focussing on domestic travel before UK borders open for international travel is a way to get the economy moving safely. Air travel may require vaccine certification, mandatory testing and possibly quarantining, but the UK road and rail networks remain open for business.


Rail operators have successfully implemented social distancing, so by travelling smarter and less frequently, over-crowding could become a distant memory.


The safe return of domestic travel will stimulate the UK economy. Travel, accommodation, venues, and event industry providers need it to return, as does the government. The furlough scheme cost £46.4 billion up to the end of 2020.[13]


Whilst the vaccine roll-out continues; airlines, hotels and other suppliers have implemented robust safety, hygiene and procedures to prevent virus transmission [14]. At Capita Travel and Events we have adapted our technology to highlight Covid-secure locations and providers that comply with the highest standards to ensure safety.


Are travellers willing to travel?

Business travel builds human connections. Employees who travel for work feel more empowered, engaged, and energised in their jobs. 39% of millennials would not take a job if it did not allow them to travel. [15]


A third of business travellers say the lack of business travel in 2020 demotivated them, with 40% specifically missing face-to-face meetings. Over half say business travel allows them to create meaningful human connections with colleagues and customers alike. [16]


There is an undeniable appetite amongst employers to resume safe working, especially those integral to the UK’s infrastructure such as construction, manufacturing, IT, telecoms and utilities. Each business needs to travel domestically to maintain essential business.


Vaccination and traveller testing

Although 61% of travellers see vaccination is a significant factor in deciding to resume traveling, [17] employers may require their travellers to certify negative tests and/or that they have been vaccinated. [18]


Testing is another route to relative normality, so the introduction of regular testing in travel could be received positively if it enables travellers to connect without restrictions.


Recovery will also vary by business sector. In China, where domestic and regional travel has resumed, industrial and manufacturing companies were first to travel again, whilst service industries able to operate remotely were slower. We can expect a similar picture in the UK.


What will travel programmes look like?

A year ago, organisations with essential workers were focussed on re-booting travel policies to put traveller safety first and making traveller tracking data available in real-time. These challenges now apply to every business, so employers are having to think about how to utilise business travel spend more strategically.


Short-notice changes to government Covid policies will make more last-minute bookings and changes to itineraries inevitable, so travellers will require greater and penalty-free flexibility. In turn, real-time booking data and reporting is now essential for travel managers.


Companies will also need to establish criteria for deciding between face-to-face and virtual engagement. These will reflect corporate culture, working practices and enable travel managers to re-align their travel programmes with company objectives.


Although many see some form of certification as the key to unlocking international business travel, the speed at which they are rolled out depends on how quickly other countries roll out their vaccination programmes. However, things could get complicated if some countries require proof of vaccination before a traveller can board a plane.


How we can help

Although the world has changed, we understood the pointlessness and expense of unnecessary and ineffective travel long before Covid-19.


As long-term champions of traveller safety and wellbeing within corporate travel programmes, we challenged the default position of ‘more travel’. Now, we are challenging perception that virtual meetings are the only means to connect.


We remain a UK specialist, but like all agencies, we have had to adapt to a changed world, so we can help you do the same.


We can help you to review your travel policy and will provide all the support you need to implement any changes. We can provide solutions for when colleagues are not travelling but need virtual solutions to remain connected. When they are travelling, we can help them do so safely.


We believe that business travel is about effective human connections – either virtual or in person, which is why we are enabling smarter business connections in the age of Covid-19.


In fact, whatever your definition of productivity, we can help you to think through how to connect more effectively.


Summary

The shift to greater remote working may be here to stay but businesses still need the right face-to-face connections. We can provide the right connections at the right time for the right reasons.


Remote working can benefit a business through improved performance and employee satisfaction but to optimise performance, employers need to cultivate a culture of autonomy and flexibility.


By helping you to understand your travellers better, you can decide who should travel, when and whether it is better to connect in person or virtually.


References

[1] Coronavirus: Bill Gates says more than 50% of business travel will disappear long-term (cnbc.com)

[2] gbta-poll-key-highlights-012021.pdf

[3] Skift & Trip Actions 2021 Corporate T&E survey

[4] Deloitte UK reported on www.ft.com

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/water-coolers-corridors-personality-soul-impromptu-engagement-poole/.

[6] Future Forum by Slack

[7] Nick Bloom - https://news.stanford.edu/2020/03/30/productivity-pitfalls-working-home-age-covid-19/

[8] Gartner

[9] https://workplaceinsight.net/remote-working-productivity-will-slump-as-firms-burn-up-their-social-capital/

[10] http://blog.4castplus.com/blog/what-is-the-cost-of-inaction

[11] CBI

[12] GBTA Business Travel Index

[13] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122100/uk-cost-of-furlough-scheme/

[14] Skift & Trip Actions 2021 Corporate T&E survey

[15] https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/this-is-how-millennials-really-feel-about-business-travel

[16] IHG survey reported in https://www.businesstravelexecutive.com/news/lack-of-business-travel-has-demotivated-workers-says-ihg-survey

[17] Travel Again survey of business travellers – Nov & Dec 2020

[18] GBTA survey of 380 travel managers and procurement professionals Jan 11th – 18th 2021