June 22, 2021

Topia chief: ‘Bill Gates is wrong’

Steve Black, Topia Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, explains why he believes Bill Gates is wrong to say business travel will be cut by 50% post pandemic

 

Last month, Bill Gates upset the business travel industry, which is already facing tough times. He speculated that business travel might only recover to 50% of pre-Covid levels in the future due to the rise of remote working. It is not often I would disagree with one of the world’s most famous technology billionaires, but on this occasion, I believe Bill Gates is wrong.

It will take some time for business travel to recover to the levels seen prior to the pandemic, but by the end of 2021 we will see figures higher than the 50% figure Bill Gates suggests.

Given the economic challenges many businesses will face in 2021 it will be very tempting for CFOs to constrain travel, but ultimately, there are three main reasons business travel will return:

Sales poker: while publicly all sales people may say working remotely has been fine, privately they may admit they can’t wait to get back on the road. When safe travel is back, I can see sales executives engaging in a very tense game of poker. Engagements with existing customers can be done virtually, but even Bill Gates confessed he hadn’t made any new contacts during lockdown, underlining the importance of new connections. The moment the first salesperson heads out to meet a prospect to close a deal, competitors will be faced with a choice of sticking to virtual connections or giving in and getting back out on the road.

Personal connections: In every aspect of business, serendipity and water cooler moments are critical. The CEO that tours a facility and meets employees is more likely to understand their concerns and get them to understand the ambitions of a company. The support engineer that goes to a customer to deal with an escalating problem shows the company’s commitment. Remote working has been valuable when it comes to analytical tasks that require concentration, but collaboration and creativity happen more easily when teams come together.

The new type of business traveller: 2020 was mostly about reacting to the pandemic and literally transplanting what we used to do in the office to virtual environments. Moving forward, remote working will likely create a new class of business traveller as individuals now living away from the head office travel in for in-person collaboration sessions. While the road warrior may travel less, this new band of ‘once or twice a year’ travellers may make up the shortfall. They will not travel as regularly, but individuals who traditionally did not travel at all, will travel to maintain team cohesion and problem-solve major strategy decisions.

So, business travel will not be cut in half. On the contrary, the increase in remote working will create new challenges for travel managers, who will need to consider how to track their more dispersed workforces. This will create new and increased risks, as 2021 is likely to become the year of the audit. Governments have been much more relaxed about the physical location of employees this year, but in 2021 will strengthen scrutiny and penalties for organisations that fail to comply with regulations around tax and employment law. Those that get solutions in place now will be in a much better position to deal with the increase in business travel and remote work compliance that face us next year!

Topia’s Global Talent Mobility platform empowers enterprise HR teams to deploy, manage and engage employees anywhere in the world. Its clients include Schneider Electric, Dell, Veolia, Equinor, and AXA.