Can we re-imagine the workplace to make it smaller ?

It’s a small world after all.

2020 (amongst many other things) was also the year when the world shrank.  We could and did collaborate with colleagues from China, New York, Canada and Columbia at no cost of time, travel or to the air pollution of the planet.

In 2021, as business begins to return to normal, will the world get bigger again?  Will a meeting with the global CMO of a client based in Chicago require a long haul flight?

Business travel is of course one of the oldest professions.  The three wise men were probably carrying gold, frankincense and myrrh on the back of their premium economy camel.   The very first chain of branded hospitality was created over 1000 years ago by the Cistercian monasteries to offer traders and merchants safe haven.

This changed in 2020.  And whilst the latent and pent up desire to travel on holiday is clear amongst the public in 2021, the views of experts about the return to business travel are more mixed.

The Economist points out Bill Gates thinks that “over 50% of business travel will go away”.  Credit Suisse are banking on only a downturn of 10 to 20%.  In truth it may take only one customer or client to make the point that the competition is pressing the flesh for business people to be jumping back on planes.

Is this how we want to re-imagine the workplace?  Apart from the impact on carbon emissions and on the bottom line of businesses (especially in some sectors where travel means business class and a very good hotel) there are two other factors to consider.

The first factor is gender bias.  Our research, for both The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business and for Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work, indicates that there may be a significant gender bias in business travel, especially for mums.  More fathers seem prepared to leave their family for longish periods than mothers, especially when kids are young.  More top men execs have full time partners who do not have work outside the home than top women execs which can make childcare easier.  There are plenty of exceptions to this, but lots of evidence that men predominate in globe trotting business roles.  Would this still be the case if travel remained an exception rather than the rule in these roles?  What difference would this make to the proportion of women at the top of top global businesses?

The second factor is that talent is not bounded by geography.  What if you could move your top talent anywhere in the world so that the best people worked together on the kind of projects that they excelled at and in teams that brought out the absolute best in each other?  During 2020 this was easy.  You could do a meeting in Shanghai followed by New York and Tel-Aviv.  When working in a teams with people outside your current country of residence means that families have to relocate, when one person gets a great job and their partner is compelled to follow them, when kids lose their school friends this has a cost beyond the financial implications and carbon emissions.

In February Spotify announced that their employees could choose how they want to work: in an office, remotely or at a co-working space that the business will pay a subscription for.  Employees must commit for a year at a time and get their managers approval.  Their head of diversity, inclusion and belonging, Travis Robinson, has said “the move will promote work-life balance, employee happiness and inclusion… it’s going to help the company attract talent regardless of location”.

Imagine if the pool of talent for your next major hire wasn’t just the people who live in your town but talent from anywhere in the world.

There’s a new world of work to reimagine. How big or small the world becomes is to be decided.  We should balance a return to norms with the possibilities of change.




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