Is Travel Efficient?

I often travel for business. Maybe that is the reason that I seem to find myself writing about business travel so frequently. I used to think that travel was exciting and exotic. That was right up until the point where I actually started traveling, a lot. For those of you that don’t travel much, trust me, it isn’t that great. I noticed a new commercial on television (since there really aren’t any new shows out right now, I notice the new commercials during the reruns) extolling the virtues of a certain hotel for those that “get” to travel as opposed to those that “have” to travel. Cute approach, but definitely aimed at those that don’t know anything about traveling.

I think very few of us who have done any traveling actually feel like we “get” to travel. I understand that a certain amount of travel is to be expected, and might even be considered mandatory for the proper conduct of business. Even in the virtual world that we now work in, sometimes there is no substitution for being there in person. We can video conference, Instant Message, email or even call on the phone all we want, but it is just not the same as being there.

If we accept that there is a defined amount of travel that should occur, we now need establish some boundaries around it so that we can make sure that we are efficient with the use of our travel. Is too little bad for business? Can you travel too much? Do you get a good return for your travel dollar cost investment?

Remember that travel constitutes the entire amount of time portal to portal, and back that the trip encompasses. The two hour meeting that you attended may have been very productive, but was it worth the entire two business days of work time (including travel) that were invested in it for you to attend? Before we can answer that question I think we need to apply a “weighting” factor. Customer meetings are important. They are always more important than internal business meetings. Time with the customer is precious. The customer has only a limited amount of time available in their day and if they choose to spend any of it with you, it should be treated as precious.

On the other hand, internal business meetings occur all the time. I have discussed in the past that there seems to have been a blurring of the lines between what is a meeting and what is a conference call. This blurring if anything has devalued the time spent in meetings. Now multiple people choose to attend by video or conference circuit. It may be a meeting requiring time, travel and expense, but for several it is just another phone call.

For me travel is not a very efficient use of time. I look on with great admiration and envy at those on the plane that are able to open their PCs and work on their spreadsheets or presentations. I have tried to do it. Occasionally I try again to do it, just to see if something has magically changed and I am now able to work in a cramped, strange setting with 250 strangers sitting close by, with several of whom seemingly in succession needing to go to the bathroom. It is to no avail. For whatever reason I cannot get meaningful work done on an airplane. I have even tried to write articles for publication in this forum while spending twelve hours en route to Brazil, and was unsuccessful at it.

Perhaps it is the same internal programming that makes it difficult for me to work at home instead of coming into the office. For whatever reason I find that I am most productive at the office, in a professional environment. I seem to have the tools, space and environment that I find conducive to high productivity work when I am in a business office. I find that I am reasonably productive when I travel to a remote company location and can work from an office while there, as well. It seems to be the transit time where it is difficult for me to work.

It is possible that my productivity on a plane has decreased with the available room to work on a plane. There was a time in the dim, glorious past where a standard coach seat on a plane was a whopping thirty inches wide and there was a staggering thirty two inches of leg room for each seat, in coach no less. Now it seems that there is only twenty seven inches of seat room and twenty eight inches of leg room (if you are lucky). That means we the travelers on average have lost two hundred and four square inches of room on the plane. That is almost one and a half square feet. That is a loss of approximately twenty one percent of the space that we used to get to travel in.

For comparison’s sake, my laptop computer measures eight inches by twelve inches, or is approximately ninety six square inches. On average we have lost more than two laptop computers worth of room on the average airplane seat.

Isn’t it interesting how the cost of travel continues to increase but the space that our airline ticket now purchases has decreased so significantly?

I don’t know how I was going to relate the loss of one and a half square feet of space with my difficulty in being able to work on a plane. I don’t remember being particularly able to work that much better on the old roomier seats. Perhaps it is the now much closer proximity of other people who are also not working on the plane, but who do seem to have over active bladders that is affecting me.

I do however remember being able to sleep more comfortably in the old coach seats.

Regardless, what I find is that I am not as productive when I travel as when I am in the office. I suspect to some extent this is the case for everyone, with the possible exception of my daughter. She seems to be able to conduct her work, which appears to consist of the use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and any other number of social media programs, equally well from anywhere. Maybe that is the future of business as well, although I haven’t heard if she can study for her classes as well while on a road trip with her girl friends as she can in her dorm room, but she definitely can “tweet” up a storm.

This brings me in a roundabout way to the topic of if travel actually is efficient. I have had to think about this one for a while. We spend a lot of time and money on travel. Do we actually get our monies worth out of it?

I guess it really depends on a few contributing criteria as to whether business travel can be considered efficient and whether or not we think we are getting our monies worth for the resource investment. Criteria such as who is traveling, who are they meeting, what is the purpose of the meeting, how long is the meeting and how long will it take to get there (and back) should all come into play when looking at travel.

With a decreased productivity associate with travel, spending double digit hours in transit to attend an internal meeting that is scheduled for a couple of hours doesn’t seem efficient. On the other hand as I said earlier, meetings with customers would significantly change the balance of this equation.

I have mentioned travel and meetings with customers several times. That doesn’t mean that all travel associated with customers should be construed as necessary, or efficient. There are only so many dinners, sporting events and outings that you can take a customer to before you should expect some progress. Too many times it seems that we have the tendency to associate meetings with customers as progress. Meetings with customers are activities. As I said earlier, time with a customer should be precious, but progress is actually closing deals with customers and getting contracts.

What this means that in many instances it is difficult to know if the meeting with the customer is going to progress the desired result of a business contract or a product order, or if it will be just another activity.

I guess the bottom line is that travel, even travel to see customers is more expensive from an efficiency and work opportunity lost point of view than just the cost of the airfare and hotel. When you travel you have to put several other functions and opportunities on hold or at least in a lower priority state in order to focus on the travel task at hand. I think it might have been viewed in the past that travel was some sort of break from the grind of work and hence travel might have been something to look forward to.

It’s not.

And as business and the world in general speed up and virtualizes, I am not even sure that it is really an efficient way of conducting much of our business anymore. There is definitely a place for travel, particularly where customer contact is concerned, but I am not so sure about anywhere else.

Maybe I have just traveled enough and don’t want to “get” to travel anymore.

Their Answer

Most of us in the business world these days would be classified as “knowledge workers”. We all have some members on our respective teams that may challenge this point, but for the most part this means that we make our livings and do our jobs predominantly by using our brain power as opposed to our muscle power. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to sit behind a desk, but it does take a reasonable amount of knowledge to read, understand and appropriately act upon the information contained in a balance sheet or a profit and loss statement. When you think about it, this is interesting on several levels. This would mean that those with the most knowledge, and presumably the most experience would be the most valued employees. It would also mean that when someone asks a question that they would want the answer that is the result of utilizing the best brain power, knowledge and experience available.

Most people would think that this is obviously the case in business. The right answer is usually the best answer. Experience (as opposed to Knowledge) will teach that this is not always the case.

Answers are somewhat like ideas in that everybody has them in one form or another, and they are invariably proud of them. I have also heard that ideas are like children and that your own are always beautiful, whereas those of others are usually judged with a little more skeptical eye. Such is also the case with answers.

We are all usually very proud of the answers that we create (and will hence defend them vigorously from anyone that would have the temerity to posit a different answer), and we are all usually somewhat skeptical of the answers that others create (who will also vigorously defend them from any positions and questions that we have).

It’s funny how that works. We expect everyone to see and accept the beauty in the answers we have created, and we also expect everyone to accept and acknowledge any flaws we may identify in the beauty of the answers that others have created.

This brings me to the topic of “their answers”.

Whenever any question is posed, it is always best to “reflect” as Mark Twain would say, before answering. Is the person asking the question looking for the best, most knowledgeable answer to the question, or are they looking for a ratification of their answer to the question. Are they looking for a solution or are they looking confirmation of their solution.

It is possible that their answer and the best answer are one in the same, but that is probably not probable since after all, it is their answer at this point and not yours.

Another item to be aware of in the “answering the question” scenario is the forum in which the question is asked. This can provide a significant clue as to if a true answer is being sought as opposed to the confirmation of an answer already divined. It is a good bet to assume there is an inverse relationship between the desire for a genuine answer and the size of the audience in which the question is posed.

That means that if someone calls you on the phone and privately asks you a question or your opinion on a topic, they are probably looking for you to provide them your answer. If they send out an email with a wide distribution, or pose the question in some sort of a group or public forum, they are probably looking for you (and possibly others) to provide them “their answer”.

People who provide the desired answer in the group forum will have a tendency to see their response reinforced and those that don’t will usually be challenged to provide supporting logic.

It took me a while to learn this as a new hire directly out of graduate school. In school when you are asked a question you are relatively sure that there is usually a “correct” or “best” answer. It can be open to some opinion, but this is usually the basis of our advanced educational system. We are in essence trained to provide our view of the best answer.

What we miss here is that not everyone provides the same, best or correct answer, even in school. In business there is usually no predefined correct answer that is the accepted response by which all others are measured against. So there is no way to determine who actually had the right answer until the topic under discussion has actually come to pass and the proposed answers can be measured against the reality that has occurred.

This is where experience can come in to play. People who have matriculated up into leadership positions where they are enabled to ask questions have usually gotten to those positions by answering the past questions posed of them correctly more often than not. This past positive reinforcement of their answers is one of the key ingredients associated with the potential defensive reaction to other answers that are not entirely aligned with their own.

Put simply, people who have been right in the past have a tendency to think they will continue to be right in the future. They like trust and support their answers.

Herein lays one of the dichotomies of leadership: sometimes leaders have to temper some of the very traits that enabled them to attain the leadership position. What leaders must recognize is that as they have risen in the management ranks by their very success they have both moved further away from the issues that demand answers, and they have become responsible for a greater breadth of issues that need and demand answers. Most leaders no longer have that direct and intimate interaction with the issues that affect their businesses. They need to learn to rely on those members of their teams that do.

Very few of us get to be right all the time. A leader has to have faith in the answers that they generate, but the leader must also encourage the team to generate the best answers, not their answers. Moreover, the leader needs to know when someone else has generated a better answer. The leader has to learn to step away from generating all the answers (the very process that got them to the leadership position) and learn to trust others (the future leaders) to start generating the answers.

Leaders will always generate their answers. The key is for that leader to accept and expect their teams to potentially generate something other than their answers. It takes a strong leader to ask questions and accept something other than their answers. Letting go of their answers and listening to their team’s answers is the way things can get changed. It is also the way that an organization continues to find the best answers to its questions.