When To Travel and When To Log On

Last Updated May 7, 2011 9:14 AM EDT

Has your travel budget gotten some life breathed back into it lately? According to a recent NY Times article, the airlines and car rental companies are doing the happy dance because business class travel is up over the last couple of years. To many people this means that the age of the face to face meeting is back. Does this mean managers can finally quit doing "virtual" sales meetings and get back to meeting each other over cocktails? Not so fast.

If you read between the lines, you'll see that business-class travel is up, which means the people who travel for a living are getting some of their perks back, but overall airline travel is flat at best. Gains in travel budgets are being offset by higher fuel and ticket costs.Insecurity over new terrorist threats in the wake of Bin Laden's death could chill the air of optimism many are feeling.

So when should a manager or a team travel and when will cheaper, faster methods of communication work as well or better? Turns out, it's not as simple as replacing one or the other. A smart manager uses both at the appropriate time.

  • People still need face to face contact,they don't need to be exhausted. Most people admit that true,lasting bonds of trust and communication are established when people get together physically. Laughing, bonding and cursing the caterer are all important to getting to know each other. Most experts think at least once a year it's good for the whole team to meet. You don't want to overdo it. Why schlep people together every few months for a quarterly update meeting if it can be done easier and just as effectively via webmeeting or video conference? The occasional trip is good for morale. Spending too much time in the airport food court is rarely a boon to anyone's productivity or psyche.
  • Make the most of your time together. A mistake many leaders make is trying to cram too much into the limited time you have together. At the end, people are overwhelmed, exhausted and cranky. Take a look at your agenda and identify the activities and discussions that will add the most value to your work together. Project kickoffs , brainstorming strategic next steps and product launches are terrific reasons to get together for have lively discussions, debates and receive input from everyone. Training on the new paperwork is less effective and might even be done better online when people are working in their natural habitat, in real time. Any administrivia that can be done by email as prework, or completed after the event shouldn't suck time away from your critical work.
  • More (and better) virtual meetings can make your live meetings more impactful. If leaders help teams communicate effectively and build relationships throughout the year, the times you get together will make better use of everyone's time. If you already know each other's capabilities, roles and faces it's easier to get down to work. Administrative details can be cleared up in advance of the meeting. You and your team will spend more time on the high-value work that energizes teams and makes all the travel and lost sleep worthwhile. By using webcams, shared file sites and social networking the team will already have started forming relationships that will be enhanced (or sometimes repaired) by finally breaking bread together. It will also leave time on the schedule for relaxed socializing time that will bear fruit down the road.
  • New faces spark new ideas. One of the huge advantages of being together is the opportunity to show your team off to the people in the organization they otherwise wouldn't get exposed to.Take the opportunity to introduce them to Senior leadership or people from other departments. Many remote team members feel isolated from the big picture and out of the loop on company information and chances for promotion. Do they really need to travel across the country only to hang out with the people they talk to all the time? Also, take advantage of the opportunity to do breakout sessions that put people together with folks they might not know as well. Who knows what great ideas will sprout or small problems get solved simply through hallway conversations?
Slashing travel budgets completely and refusing to allow people to meet in person might temporarily save money, but can have long-term negative impact on morale and productivity. On the other hand, using technology wisely and building relationships in between meetings can make the most of the time you do spend together.

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photo by flickr user Richard.Asia CC 2.0