Two weeks ago, I got on a plane, stayed in a hotel, and spent two days doing strategic planning with a client. It was like working in the pre-pandemic old days: talking across big tables in a hotel meeting room, drawing diagrams and writing keywords on flip charts. I never thought any in-person work like that could be justified again, but I was wrong. That trip also forced me to get clear on my criteria for business travel during COVID-19. Here it is.
Before I describe why I took that trip and how I’ll decide if I go on future trips, let’s address the elephant in the virtual room: is it safe to travel?
There were, and still are, no prohibitions in place for travel to my destination. I traveled through large and small Canadian airports and flew on both of Canada’s major airlines. Mask use in the airports was about 99%—I get it, some people can’t wear them—but on the airplanes, usage was 100%. In the airport, hand sanitizer was everywhere, and people kept their distance from each other. My hotel and the local restaurants were spotless, and all service staff wore masks and reminded everyone of sanitizing protocols. Restaurants required you to provide your phone number for contact tracing in case they had an outbreak.
“Getting back to work and staying safe are not mutually exclusive.”
For the two days of strategic planning, there were only two of us in the over-sized meeting room; this was an initial session with a senior leader, and more people will be engaged in the next stage. We stayed about 4 metres (12 feet) apart, and we each had our own flip chart and markers. The hotel staff provided a sanitizing station at the entrance to the meeting room and wiped down the entire room at the beginning of each day.
This trip was safe. If I had gotten COVID-19, it would have been because I did something wrong, not because appropriate safety protocols were ignored by others—protocols were appropriate and followed. I had a safety-first attitude and so did everyone else. Now I know that getting back to work and staying safe are not mutually exclusive.
Why take any risk?
But since the type of work I do can be done remotely, why take any risk just to meet in-person?
“To get this done on time, we need to start in the same room.”
Leadership development and implementing strategic change—all the consulting work I do—can be done, and is done, remotely. And for the past six months, I have been doing it remotely. But then a request came in from a special client. He said, “To get this done on time, we need to start in the same room. How do you feel about coming here?” His statement was true, but his question took some time to answer; eventually I answered, “I’ll be there.” Here’s why I decided to go.
First, his organization provides critical, life-saving healthcare services. Second, there is a unique and narrow window of opportunity to expand their contribution to well-being. Third, my client and I both knew we could do more in ten in-person hours, than we could ever do in one hundred hours of remote collaboration.
Criteria for business travel during COVID-19
It’s been two weeks since that trip and, in my part of the world, risk and protocols haven’t changed. I’ll still evaluate the necessity for business travel on a case-by-case basis, but now I have good decision-making criteria—and I only have two criteria.
Business travel criteria #1: Is travel permitted and safe?
Are adequate safety protocols in place and are they being followed? And, will you follow those protocols? If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then your business travel just got a lot safer. Of course, these are not easy questions to answer. The answers might be different depending on the destination, the time it takes to get there, and the route you need to take. Right now, as I publish this article, my answers are “yes” for that same trip.
But, in a pandemic, just because travel may be permitted and protocols are in-place, doesn’t mean it’s risk-free; that’s why we need Criteria #2.
Business travel criteria #2: Is the work critical?
When my client asked me, “How do you feel about coming here?” my gut wanted to say, “I’d rather work from home.” I didn’t say anything for a few seconds and the silence was getting uncomfortable as I thought about the risks. But then I said, “I can keep myself safe and this is important work; I’ll be there.”
We’ve always taken risks in our working lives. Although we might work for survival, social connection, or to contribute to our own sense of self-worth, work often happens at the expense of other things that are meaningful to us and to those we care about. Does your work contribute to the well-being of others enough to justify the time it takes and the risks you take? Only you know the answer.
Do you have your own criteria for business travel? Please let me know by connecting with me and leaving a comment on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Also, please share this article with your family, friends, and coworkers.
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