Monday, January 04, 2010

Advantages of Virtual Business Travel

As we begin the new year and new decade, it’s a good time to rethink some of the things we’ve been doing as a matter of habit. For instance, how do you feel about business travel? Do you relish the opportunity? Do you jump at every chance to go, no matter what? As a manager, do you lobby for the highest travel budgets you can get because your employees love it so and the return on the investment is fantastic? Or, does the whole subject make you cringe a bit?

To conference or to teleconference? That is the question.If you are in the cringe category, you may find there are great benefits in trading off a substantial portion of your in-person business travel with virtual business travel. See if one or more of these advantages sound attractive.

1. Reclaim at least two days of productivity per trip. It’s hard to go any distance by air without losing one day going, one day returning, plus the wait time at the destination before you can actually engage with your client, supplier, or prospect.

2. Save almost all the cost associated with taking the trip. That includes air fare, auto rental, hotel, meals, and other misc. fees you won’t be writing up on an expense report if you stay put.

3. Avoid the mounting stress of long distance travel. Even back in the days when air travel was relatively easy, how well did you sleep that first night in the hotel? I don’t think I ever did get a full night’s sleep on a business trip. Now you have the added pressure of intrusive security, reduced amenities, and legitimate concern over your personal safety.

4. Save yourself the coming abuse of air travelers. New airline rules intended to counter terrorism in the air are threatening to make airline travel more like a stint in the state pen than the thrill of flying that the Wright Brothers experienced. Currently proposed is a mandate to remain in your seat for the last hour with nothing in your lap. No trip to the bathroom, no working on the computer, no listening to the iPod, no reading a book, no talking on the cell phone. Just stare forward, please. You don’t want to look suspicious.

Even if cooler heads prevail and security rules are limited to only the absolute necessities, you’re still faced with long check-ins, tarmac delays, few amenities (like food) and rising costs as the pressure of limited cheap oil supplies comes back into play. Chances are it’s not going to get cheaper or more fun to travel. Still want to go?

If you’d like to travel less, but just don’t know how, here’s how virtual business travel can work. Instead of going somewhere to meet in person, you meet electronically. The most sophisticated version of this is Cisco’s Telepresence system. In a fully decked out Telepresence room, you sit at a half-round conference table. The other half is visible through a wall of high resolution flat screen monitors pushed up to where the physical table stops. Your counterparts at the other end have the same experience. With video cameras and microphones, you have the experience of sharing a conference room even though half the group is in one city and half in another.

Another approach is called desktop conferencing. Citrix GoToMeeting creates a conference environment on your personal computer. You view applications and files, share keyboard and mouse control, chat with the group or particular individuals, have a simultaneous audio conference through VoIP or telephone conferencing, and use tools to draw, highlight and point to items of interest on the screen.

The beauty of conferencing on demand is that you can get together as much as you want. With travel involved, conferences and project reviews need to be scheduled in advance and structured to meet an agenda. Sometimes just preparing the agenda takes longer than a series of virtual meetings. As businesses take another look at the expense, time, and irritations involved in extensive travel, it’s likely that virtual travel is going to gain an increasing share of team collaboration, presentations, discussions and reviews.

This may be another one of those tipping points. Once virtual travel becomes ingrained in the business process, it will be seen as the normal and proper way to work. Physical travel will become an extraordinary event. Without the need to be physically co-located, we’re also likely to see an increase in the formation of virtual companies. Everyone will be part of the same operation but few, if any, will reside in the same building. It won’t matter. They’ll be so tightly coupled virtually that the sense of common purpose will be as strong as if they occupied the same maze of cubicles or sea of desks.

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