Comment: Why Bill Gates is wrong about business travel

Steve Black, co-founder of human resources firm Topia, predicts an ‘arms race’ for facetime with travel sellers when restrictions relaxed

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on business travel, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates went as far as predicting more than 50% of business travel will go away now virtual meetings have become the norm.

No doubt Mr Gates would offer Microsoft’s Teams as a worthy substitute but making new connections — critical for business growth — is virtually impossible over video chat. Even Gates himself admits he hasn’t created new friendships this year.

His dire prediction underestimates the fact human connection is how business gets done. And with meetings, conferences and other networking events cancelled over the last year, employees are eager to connect with one another and with new prospects.

In fact, your business growth depends on it. While your sales team may be happy to stay home and sell virtually for the convenience, the reality is that if your competitor pays that prospect a visit, and you don’t, you are much more likely to lose the deal. When this realisation sets in, it will kick-off a travel arms race with sellers scrambling to get face time with potential customers.

Meanwhile, your own team is eager to reconnect with one another, and any new hires absolutely need it to feel like they’re part of the organisation. Despite advances in remote technology and collaboration, the relationship building via such platforms is still difficult. That means people who may have never travelled for work before, or have no need to day-to-day, will suddenly need to hit the road once or twice a year for team building and collaboration.

Even if the threshold for justifying travel is much higher, as Gates suggests, business travel will still be essential. And while the volume of trips may be smaller, it will likely be spread out over a larger employee population. Companies need to prepare for this shift to avoid risk and stay ahead of the competition. Here’s how:

Establish smart policies: With a greater emphasis on ROI for each trip, companies will need to establish policies for justifying the business case for travel. Setting clear expectations and decision-making criteria can help lower risk and cost, while still allowing necessary travel to move forward. Don’t let blanket ‘no travel’ policies get in the way of driving growth.

Be sensitive to employee needs: While some employees may be eager to hit the road, others who are high risk or have children to home school may not be able to. Be considerate of these issues and balance travel needs with employee capacity.

Manage compliance: Where your employees work can have significant legal and tax implications, and while governments have been forgiving over the last year under these unprecedented circumstances, don’t expect that to continue. Implement a system that helps you track and manage where employees go to make sure you’re staying compliant with taxes and employment laws.

Maintain audit-ready records: While governments have been lenient, most are now facing huge budget shortfalls and will be eager to collect tax payments and penalties. Be sure you have the technology in place to provide reliable, auditable records that prove your employees’ whereabouts and justify your tax liability and legal position.

As business travel returns, it will introduce a new set of complexities that companies will need to manage in order to minimise risk and expenses. Getting ahead of the surge with thoughtful policies and robust technology can help organisations manage business travel in a post-Covid world.

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