Business Travel: Are we discovering that virtual working isn’t so great after all?

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By the end of March 2020, global lockdowns saw office staff scuttle home, companies pivot to remote working and teams around the world embrace the likes of Zoom, Trello and G-Suite.

In May, The Economist predicted the end of working life as we know it, going as far as saying the shift to remote working may rival the great workplace transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Twitter declared that all its employees will be allowed to work from home permanently – and Facebook expects half its staff to do so within a decade.

COVID-19 made working from home not only necessary, but acceptable. And with an abundance of remote working platforms available (not to mention high-speed broadband) it’s also proved itself to be easy and convenient.

Fast-forward a couple of months and remote and virtual working might just be losing some of its gloss. Many employees are reporting feeling ‘disconnected’ or ‘disengaged’ and it’s becoming harder to keep up company morale or generate camaraderie. Granted, this might be part of the pandemic’s ‘coronacoaster’ and a very real need to return to normality. But remote working does have its drawbacks, including:

  1. Burnout and boundaries

A common refrain of current times? I’m no longer working from home; I’m living at work. Remote working during a pandemic is very different to what we all envisioned. Boundaries are blurred (with no commute to bookend your day), and many are finding that they are working longer hours in an ‘always-on’ world.

  1. Reliability, retention and commitment

Burnout equals tired staff. Staff who may be easily distracted, less focussed, less productive or no longer able to bring their best. Again, this is due in part to COVID’s mental load, but according to Hubstaff Blog remote workers are more likely to look at jobs as stepping stones or waypoints and feel no guilt about moving on to new opportunities. 

  1. Culture and camaraderie

In other words, remote staff may not feel as deep a connection (or have stronger roots) as their office-bound counterparts. Company culture takes a backseat, it’s hard to develop camaraderie and everyone’s missing the daily banter and office jokes of days gone by.

  1. Tools and technology

For those who are able to work remotely with little more than a laptop and internet connection, it’s easy to forget the frustration of those who rely on office-bound tech. The whizzy bells and whistles of large-format printers and state-of-the-art scanners come with a hefty price tag, and many are missing out on the ease and convenience of their office tools and toys.

For South Africans, load shedding remains an ongoing problem. Employers can hardly expect their staff to invest in generators or inverters at home, and larger offices with load-shedding solutions in place will prefer their team on site, rather than disrupted by load shedding at home.

  1. Security concerns

The shift to remote working has revealed just how vulnerable remote workers, and in turn, their companies, are to cyber-attacks. Working from home exposes you to more cyber threats;  and without the protection of a corporate firewall, coupled with a pretty laissez-faire attitude to passwords, sensitive data leaks might be more common than you think.

So, are we discovering that remote working is not all it’s cracked up to be? And will there be a move back to the office?

Oz Desai, GM Corporate Traveller, believes that we’ll probably course-correct to something in the middle: “While Zoom has taught us that meetings can easily be accomplished via video call, it has also highlighted the importance of face-to-face meetings. Often video calls can be very staid and humourless. People miss the spontaneity of ‘real life’ meetings, the creative sparring and brainstorming which takes place, and the off-the-cuff remarks that can take a meeting or idea in a completely different direction.

“While people like the idea of working from home, we can expect a shift to something slightly more flexible – perhaps balancing remote work with days spent in the office. Companies are now more open to the idea of remote work, but looking for ways to forge team spirit, create camaraderie and ensure they don’t lose the benefits of human interaction.”

Business Travel will look a little different too. Gidon Novick, founder of Lucid Ventures (and kulula.com), speaking at last week’s ASATA Travel Summit, said that business travel will change forever, but for the good. He expects more meaningful travel  and longer stays, predicting that people won’t stay for a single meeting anymore – but cluster meetings together and stay in their destination for as long as seven to 10 days.

Desai agrees, “Business travel has always been important, and often seen as a perk. With travel budgets now top of mind, and return on investment key, we’re definitely going to see more meaningful trips, as companies relegate less-important meetings to Zoom. But we’re also going to see more team-building opportunities – as well as a bleisure component built into trips as a way to reward team members, while looking after their health and well-being.”

For Desai, return on investment and a new way of doing things is at the heart of Corporate Traveller’s pledge to customers: “As the world re-opens, businesses will need to navigate their way to recovery and position themselves to be ready for the next step. That’s where our consultative approach comes in. We’re constantly reviewing government policies, supplier updates and trends, so that you can make real-time decisions, support your travellers and address your travel programme adjustments.”

As South Africa moves into Alert Level 2, things are beginning to look and feel a little different. Many have headed back to work, some have their first post-lockdown business trip under their belt, while others are exploring flexible options. But what is clear is that remote working may not be the work-life balance utopia we once hoped it to be.

For more information about Corporate Traveller or to interview Corporate Traveller South Africa GM Oz Desai, call Dorine Reinstein on 083 278 8994 or email dorine@bigambitions.co.za.

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