It came as somewhat of a nasty surprise to the corporate travel sector that despite their $37 billion COVID-19 vaccine profit payday last year, Pfizer announced last month that they would be cutting back sales staff. The perception was that doctors would not want to meet its sales reps face-to-face in a post-pandemic world. Pzifer framed it as “evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world.”
Cue the next slew of obituaries for business travel and in-person meetings and questions as to whether they’d ever return to pre-pandemic levels again. For almost two years now, we’ve witnessed a pile-on of commentary asking whether, after all this time operating successfully on Zoom, there’s any real need for in-person, face-to-face meetings or travelling for conferences?
This thinking is prevalent once again in the context of the Omnicron variant. Best-laid return to the office plans have disappeared for now as employees slip back into their track pants and back onto Teams calls, bunkering down in personal responsibility lockdowns in their home offices, bedrooms and at their dining room tables.
At this precise time, it’s easy to understand why it feels we’ll always forgo the hassle of crossing the city, the country, even the world for business when it’s so easy to communicate via evolving video conferencing technologies. After all, as pundits say, where is the value in time spent commuting to your next appointment or taking an in-person meeting in another state or country when you can expedite the whole process with a Zoom call?
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I could easily make a case for the above, writing this piece while working at home once again in Melbourne. But, as my world narrows to my computer screen, it’s hard to fathom that in November and December last year, I was flitting between Melbourne and Sydney in what felt like PP (pre-pandemic) revelry to undertake a series of in-person meetings with clients and potential clients.
During the months of extended lockdowns, I had read with curiosity that in-person meetings and business travel were forever dead. However, as soon as the states opened up for business, I knew I’d be back on the 6.10am flight at Tullamarine to make breakfast meetings in north Sydney. Why? Behavioural science has given me an awareness of how easy it is to get blindsided imagining the future with present-day thinking and circumstances in mind.
We are dealing with a heuristic (otherwise known as a behavioural shortcut), known as projection bias. As humans, we make the error of assuming that our current set of preferences and priorities will also be our future set of preferences and priorities. A prime example is that if I’m currently happy taking all my meetings on Zoom, I’ll always be happy taking all my meetings on Zoom.
It’s a perfectly rational assumption to make, considering how our brains developed over time. The reptilian part of our brain responsible for the majority of our in-the-moment decision-making and many of our most primal functions such as breathing, balance and body temperature has been 300 million years in the making. In contrast, the part of our brain responsible for future simulations (the prefrontal cortex) has been around for a paltry 200,000 years. Think of it as still in beta with vast room for improvement, such as learning not to use assumptions about today’s reality when imagining a future one.
This lack of foresight saw the share price for airlines plummet in March 2020, while Zoom and many other video conferencing companies went into hyper-growth. Then in August 2021, as vast tracks of the world came out of coronavirus-hibernation and went back into offices and schools, Zoom stock crashed.
“When we look out through what we have seen is a slowdown in the online segment of the business, which again, even though the pandemic seems to be far from over, we are happy that people are feeling more comfortable out travelling. And that’s really where we’re seeing the slowdown,” explained Zoom CFO Kelly Steckelberg.
Unsurprisingly Zoom stock rallied again in January 2022 as Omnicron hit. How quickly we forget.
For all the talk of permanent behaviour change, the data suggests that we stopped travelling because we had to, not because we wanted to. Across the US, Europe, and now in Australia, significant drops in COVID-19 restrictions, case numbers, or severity have been followed by a rapid upswing in domestic travel.
Yet when the conversation turns both to the merits of remote work and business travel, ‘the incredible efficiency’ is often put front and centre. In reality, this is a complete misrepresentation. Sure, efficiency is part of the equation, but it’s far from the whole story, especially when you consider how many valuable pursuits are inherently inefficient; creativity, hospitality, scientific discovery and relationship-building, to name a few.
In my world (creative advertising), a team will tackle a client brief by coming up with a hundred ideas, which are reduced to 15 for an initial internal review, five for a subsequent internal review, three for a client presentation, of which, hopefully, one will be selected to go to market. If productivity were our goal, we’d stop at the first idea, which would make the agency very efficient, but the work very average.
Lastly, let us not underestimate just how vital good old fashioned chemistry is between human beings, whether that is getting together with peers and colleagues and sharing ideas and a beverage or two at a conference or in a new business context. Despite our best intentions (and outward claims) to be rational pragmatists, most business decisions — like all decisions — are still made on gut feel. Who could I work with day-to-day? Who’s decent? Who’s probably not going to screw this up? Meeting in person means people can size each other up and pick up on physical cues as to whether someone’s full of confidence or just full of it. That’s got to be worth the trip alone.