The business world is gradually going back to the office and back on the road. Conferences that have been canceled will be rescheduled. Customers whose contracts expire receive bids from competitors. Still, many employees have concerns. They still have problems with family care or have high-risk families living in the same household. They may have reasons not to be vaccinated, or they are worried about overcrowded airports, planes and hotels.
Gideon Schneider is a co-founder of London-based Optimized talent, people and change consultants who specialize in helping companies exceed their goals by maximizing the efficiency of their employees. With clients ranging from Credit Suisse, Coca-Cola, ITV and Imperial College London, Schneider answers our question of getting the team back on track – motivated and ready to deliver the results you seek.
What do you see in terms of how companies handle return to business travel?
The pandemic forced companies to move many of their face-to-face activities online. While this new way of working has in some cases proved just as effective, if not more so than the expensive and time-consuming habit of flying into meetings, there is a growing consensus among organizations that much has been lost along the way. Conferences and client visits were never just about the information presented at the events, but about the personal building of important relationships that inevitably formed the basis of most good companies. An organization is only as strong as the relationships it has with its customers and suppliers. For this reason, many have missed contracts or even lost customers because they were unable to build and maintain these long-term and meaningful relationships. Therefore, there is a growing appetite for renewed business travel.
A number of concerns need to be considered when organizations shift to a post-pandemic world. In the beginning of the pandemic, people needed time to adjust to the disruption that the new realities were causing in their lives. When we ask our people to get back on the road, there will also be more change in their lives, and this will also require a period of adjustment. Organizations need to evaluate whether there is a need to retrain their people to network and sell in person, but also need to examine what extra support is needed when individuals leave their homes for life in transit.
A silver lining of the pandemic was that it forced organizations to become more aware of what provisions they were making for the well-being of their people. Organizations became more aware that individual responses to the pandemic and unique personal circumstances warranted personalized approaches to support staff well-being. This trend must continue as we all face the upheaval that will cause us to return to business travel. Whether it’s about individuals who fear returning to the world for health reasons, or those who feel less confident of having had such a long break from personal interactions, organizations need to develop personal strategies to support their people so well they can.
Can you share some examples of the best and worst examples you have seen?
Organizations that have thought through how a reintroduction of travel will affect the lives of their people and develop personalized strategies to offer support are the ones that get it right. I helped an organization design a series of wellness offerings that included a dedicated phone number for employees on the go to call for additional support. Researchers we found that this simple act made them feel that the organization had their interests at heart and gave them more confidence to return to business travel. Another organization has offered additional help to families who have taken on extra care tasks during the pandemic. They did this by working with local support organizations and working with those in need to find appropriate arrangements. I have also helped organizations develop their communication strategies around moving their people back to business travel. I will touch on this more later, but the organizations that did this successfully showed understanding for the challenges of the employees and demonstrated a serious commitment to making things work for everyone.
Conversely, an organization called me because employee engagement and morale had declined in the previous few months. My research showed that this stemmed from employees feeling unheard of, underestimated and left out of the decision-making processes that had affected their lives so much last year. We managed to turn things around by working with individuals and teams in the organization to get their buy-in to a transition to hybrid work, mix home and in-office events as well as provide their input on how to make a return to travel work To everyone.
What do you recommend in terms of developing and communicating a plan that will get your team back out there?
It is important that those who work for the organization feel heard and understood. Building trust and improving motivation requires seeking input early in the process of getting life back to normal. The communication piece is not about an email expressing a fait-accompli set of decisions that get staff back on track, but starts with the consultation process that led to those decisions. This gives staff a sense that their needs and concerns are being addressed, and helps them feel more identified with the goals of the organization that have shown a willingness to support their well-being. It is important to understand the many different reasons why some team members may have concerns about returning to the journey. The communication plan lands more successfully if it seeks to address staff concerns. For example, those with new family obligations may be offered additional support to help them with the transition to increased travel. Colleagues expressing concern about the fear of the pandemic may be invited for an interview to explore the possibilities.
Finally, the tone of communication must reflect optimism for the future and a desire for all members of the organization to be part of future success. If increased travel is part of the path to recovery for organizations, it is not just a request for staff to return on board, but an invitation to contribute to the organization’s achievements and its purpose.
Recently, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told CNBC that clients told him that in cases where the bank lost business to rivals, it was because “bankers from the other guys visited, and ours did not. Well, that’s a lesson. Do you think statements like this from a boss are useful – or can they lead to anxiety and unwanted negative consequences?
I think, sir. Dimon expresses a truth for JP Morgan. They are an incredibly successful organization and I trust his analysis of what works and does not work for their business. His comment makes absolute sense that they were more likely to lose where competitors had managed to create warmer connections with their customers. An organization’s success is built on the strength of the relationships it builds, and most people agree that a personally developed connection will always be deeper than one created online.
Negative consequences would only occur when other organizations interpret his views on JP Morgan as an indication of what would work for their own relationships. The consultation piece that I have already mentioned, whether it is through staff surveys or one-on-one conversations across the company, is about figuring out how decisions affect stakeholders at all levels. When organizations build focus on the well-being of their people, show a willingness to understand their views and work with them for the benefit of the collective, they are more likely to achieve and exceed their business goals.