The year when the world got smaller
A view from Sue Unerman

The year when the world got smaller

The Covid pandemic brought business travel to a virtual standstill, in the process forcing us to change the way we work internationally, in some cases for the better. So, as and when business begins to return to 'normal', perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to jump back on board

2020 (amongst many other things) was the year when the world shrank. We could and did collaborate with colleagues from China, New York, Canada and Colombia, at no cost of time, travel or to the air pollution of the planet.

In 2021, as business begins to return to normal, will the world get bigger again? Will a meeting with the global CMO of a client based in Chicago require a long-haul flight?

Business travel, is of course, one of the oldest professions. The three wise men were probably carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh on the back of their premium economy camel. The very first chain of branded hospitality was created more than 1000 years ago by the Cistercian monasteries to offer traders and merchants safe haven. 

This changed in 2020. And while the latent and pent-up desire to travel on holiday is clear amongst the public in 2021, the views of experts about the return to business travel are more mixed.

The Economist points out that Bill Gates thinks “over 50% of business travel will go away”. Credit Suisse is banking on a downturn of only 10-20%. In truth, it may take only one customer or client to make the point that the competition is pressing the flesh for business people to be jumping back on planes. 

Is this how we want to reimagine the workplace? Apart from the impact on carbon emissions and to the bottom line of businesses (especially in some sectors where travel means business class and a very good hotel), there are two other factors to consider.

The first factor is gender bias. Research for our books The Glass Wall and Belonging indicates that there may be a significant gender bias in business travel, especially for mums. 

More fathers seem prepared to leave their family for longish periods than mothers, especially when kids are young. More top men execs have full-time partners who do not have work outside the home than top women execs do, which can make childcare easier. 

There are plenty of exceptions to this, but lots of evidence that men predominate in globetrotting business roles. Would this still be the case if travel remained an exception rather than the rule in these roles? What difference would this make to the proportion of women at the top of top global businesses?

The second factor is that talent is not bounded by geography. What if you could move your top talent anywhere in the world, so that the best people worked together on the kind of projects that they excelled at and in teams that brought out the absolute best in each other? 

During 2020, this was easy. You could do a meeting in Shanghai followed by New York and Tel Aviv. When working in a team with people outside your current country of residence means that families have to relocate, that when one person gets a great job their partner is compelled to follow them, that kids lose their school friends, this has a cost beyond the financial implications and carbon emissions.

In February, Spotify announced that its employees could choose how they want to work: in an office, remotely or at a co-working space that the business will pay a subscription for. Employees must commit for a year at a time and get their manager's approval. Spotify's head of diversity, inclusion and belonging, Travis Robinson, has said that “the move will promote work-life balance, employee happiness and inclusion… it’s going to help the company attract talent regardless of location”. 

Imagine if the pool of talent for your next major appointment wasn’t just the people who live in your town but talent from anywhere in the world. 

There’s a new world of work to reimagine. How big or small the world becomes is to be decided. We should balance a return to norms with the possibilities of change.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Picture: Florian Gaertner/Getty Images