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Can We Reopen the World with Less Business Travel?

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Yes, we can!

Business is not going to return to the old "normal.”

As CEO of Australia’s largest bank, my sister-in-law spends perhaps 75 to 80 percent of her life traveling around the world to the 25 countries where Macquarie has a presence. I don’t know how her body adjusts to the constant shifting of time zones, but her bright light and energy never seem to dim even when she’s been on an airplane for hours. Now she’s grounded at home with her family, spending 10 to 12 hours a day on Zoom.

Another friend, who has just taken on a new job that puts her on the road over 50 percent of the time, is loving this break from her wild travel schedule. She’s hoping that this “Great Pause,” as I call it, will change the way her organization works in the future.

These travel routines are an extreme, but they raise the question of how much professionals have become accustomed to traveling for work. When I managed a large publications team for CH2M HILL, I traveled several times each month—around the Northwest, Alaska, or Hawaii to meet with staff; to our corporate headquarters in Denver; or to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, or Washington DC, where I met with my management colleagues.

Later on, working as part of CH2M HILL’s sustainability team, we measured and reported the company’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and met an ambitious goal to cut our carbon footprint by 25 percent. We tracked business travel and worked with our travel agency so that each time an employee rented a car or flew a plane, they knew how much carbon their trip would emit. We encouraged teleworking and videoconferencing instead of travel to reduce our impact. But still, business travel was a huge part of getting the job done...and a huge part of the company's greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2016 (the last year for which CH2M reported its GHG emissions in our annual Sustainability and Corporate Citizenship Report), 37 percent of our emissions came from employee commuting, 12 percent from air travel, and 4 percent from ground travel. As a service provider, we didn't manufacture products, which often contribute to a large percentage of a company's GHG emissions. A full 53 percent of our GHG emissions came from travel and commuting. As you’ll see in the chart above, our air travel stayed steady throughout the years from 2012 to 2016. Nothing we could do seemed to decrease the amount of travel. Until now. When coronavirus hit, all business travel ground to a halt.

As a result, our planet is breathing a bit more freely. Experts estimate that the global shutdown caused greenhouse gas emissions to decline by at least 17 percent by early April. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “The latest and most detailed study yet on the pandemic’s impact on climate pollution…by the research group Global Carbon Project chaired by Stanford University’s Rob Jackson, finds that the Earth will see up to a 7 percent decrease in carbon dioxide this year. The dip is five times the decline in emissions in 2009, when the Great Recession choked the world’s economy, and double what it was in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Working from home certainly has its challenges, and a Zoom meeting or Skype call cannot replace face-to-face contact. We’ve all experienced the weariness and exhaustion associated with spending all day on Zoom. In fact, it reminds me of the tiredness I felt at the end of an all-day meeting. And I AM AN EXTROVERT! I can’t imagine how introverts feel after spending hours on video. Zoom seems to tire me out more than meeting face to face, especially if the meeting consists of more than four people and even more if the meeting is not well run.

It’s so much easier, and more fun, to meet with people in person, and to bond over a dinner out after a hard day in meetings.

However, I'm guessing that 25 to 50 percent of business travel is not necessary, as we are learning now. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen leaders traveling to another location and then just hibernating on their own in an office. We’ve all attended meetings that were not productive and could have been accomplished in much less time…or even online. Back in 1995, our region’s IT manager was fired because he kept taking his employees on junkets to our Honolulu office! Inevitably, business travel can result in waste of company funds, not to mention the excessive GHG emissions.

So how can we change our ways?

As offices reopen and eventually air travel becomes more appealing, businesses will inevitably reexamine the ways they operate. Before COVID-19 hit, only 3.6 percent of U.S. employees worked from home half the time or more…even though 80 percent of them wanted to. Global Workplace Analytics predicts that this number will land at around 25 to 30 percent by the end of 2021.

Most Americans have found they enjoy working from home, according to a recent YouGov survey. They like not having to commute, being able to dress as they like (sweats, anyone?), and having the flexibility afforded by working from home. The coronavirus pandemic has twisted the idea of “being able” to work from home for those who can. It's no longer a luxury enjoyed by a few; it's now a public health requirement for everyone who does office work.

Many businesses that resisted teleworking in the past have now embraced the idea out of necessity and are willing to consider more work-from-home positions in the future. Twitter has told its employees that they can continue working from home forever if they would like to. When we have a vaccine, we’re not all going to go back into the office full-time.

We’re entering a period of transition, with some offices opening up partially, providing opportunities for social distancing and fewer people working in the same building. We’ll gradually see people begin traveling again, although we know that air travel will look very different when we get back to the airports. Although it never was relaxing, it will become more stressful and time-consuming.

Let’s say we have a vaccine by February 2021 (an optimistic outlook). In preparation for that time, every organization should take a close look at their travel practices and reassess which in-person meetings are essential and whether they can be more efficient or be conducted online. Going back to the chart above tracking CH2M's GHG emissions, we know that if business travel was cut by just 25 percent, and if employees cut their commuting by 25 percent, we’d see huge benefits in our overall GHG emissions.

And that doesn’t even include improvements in quality of life and employee satisfaction.

More than likely, global emissions will rise again. But I am hopeful that governments and organizations will learn something from this Great Pause. Already, leaders in Germany and Britain have vowed to pursue policies that continue to lower emissions. With climate change an increasing threat to the planet, we cannot go back to the old ways of doing things.

As it turns out, Jacobs, the company that acquired CH2M HILL, had committed to a 20 percent reduction in business travel when COVID-19 hit, according to GreenBiz. Business travel makes up 60 percent of Jacobs’ emissions, as opposed to CH2M’s 53 percent back in 2016…so I’m glad to see they are focusing on this issue. Jacobs has a much less comprehensive and centralized approach to sustainability than CH2M HILL had.

If any good can come from this pandemic, it may be that it has forced us to take a good look at ourselves and the many things we take for granted, including our mindless acceptance of GHG emissions. If we pursue new policies, we might have a chance to step back from the brink and make the world a more sustainable place for future generations. Let's create a "new normal"!

Contact me for more information about sustainability or environmental management in the workplace. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.

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