Question: What do E20 VOIP video phones, Web conferencing, and work-from-home programs all have in common?
Answer: They perceptibly decrease the need to travel.
But do they really effectively replace actual physical travel for business? There was once a television commercial for Southwest Airlines that aired some 15 years ago, where a manager gathered his staff and said, “Our clients are tired of being ‘conferenced in’ to a phone call and they’re tired of being told, ‘I’ll get back to you with an e-mail or a fax.’” He produced a pocket full of airplane tickets and said, “We’re going to meet these people face-to-face and we’re going to shake their hands.” He passed out the tickets then announced, “I’m going to Phoenix to visit an old client who fired us this morning … ”
How do you decide between when to send an employee out for travel and when it’s best to save the money and use the Internet or the phone? Faxes and e-mail were the hottest thing going, 15 years ago. Video phones and Web-conferencing technology certainly represent a significant advance in remote communication. I would argue, however, that with all of this technology in place, physical travel and face-to-face meetings become that much more important.
Some things absolutely require a trip, and you’ll just have to send someone. When it comes to installing software, configuring applications, or watching how various business processes are completed by staff to offer consulting tips and advice, there’s no substitute for actually being there. But what about situations that traditionally called for a face-to-face meeting (and travel) that seem to be able to be accomplished via a Web conference or a video conference? I’m talking about software or application demonstrations, application training, technical training, and similar functions.
I did some research into a large software company that recently revamped its technical training curriculum to include offerings in an LVC, or live virtual classroom. This company would save the $2,000 per week cost (per trainer) of sending a trainer to a remote location, while offering its clients a “no travel” option for their students at the same time. It seemed like a good idea, so good that it committed a significant portion of its developmental resources to build LVC-specific curriculums and applications that use Web-conferencing tools to generate a virtual classroom. Ideally, classrooms could now span time zones, travel schedules, dress codes, and so forth. But one year later, the results aren’t what they expected. Evaluations for trainers are showing an obvious lack of “personal attention to the students.” Trainers are reporting that students often walk away from their computers, fail to do required exercises, and so on. In short, the information retention is way down and so are the sales numbers for seats in virtual classrooms.
Business travel is a necessary and permanent part of our working lives. Consider these tips when deciding whether to send someone onsite:
- Ask yourself, “Do I really need a person there?” Soft skills training or information dissemination are easily done via the Web. There’s no need to send someone on a tour of your remote facilities to teach ethics or to demonstrate how to “get along well with others.” Also, day-to-day “how-to” skills can be easily accomplished with a suite of how-to videos. Requesting time off, booking travel, submitting reports, and using proper spreadsheet practices and similar procedures can all be done this way.
- Put yourself in their shoes. If you yourself worked at the remote site (whether a client site or an internal corporate location), would you be more impressed if someone were sent? Would you have some confidential questions that you would rather not ask in a public forum over a Web conference? Do you need someone to guide you while your hands are doing the work? Are there some complex demonstrations of software or applications that would require someone to be there physically, to really understand? Are there groups of people who would all benefit from someone’s physical appearance?
It may seem like an unnecessary expense when you first approve it, but “face-to-face” business travel pays much bigger dividends in the long run. Information is retained longer, clients have a more memorable experience, and relationships are cultivated. It’s a good thing.