Here’s a simplistic idea: could we save the planet by reducing our focus on how business must occur face-to-face?

By now you’ve probably heard about or seen or have some context around this new climate change report, which was fairly dire. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who care about the issue is essentially the same as it was in 1989, despite documentation of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, etc. Watch this to freak yourself out a bit:

The media doesn’t generally cover it — some believe it should be contextualized more as a food supply issue — and there are still pockets of people denying it happens at all. Let’s be honest for a second here: the reason this is a non-issue for most people is because if you look at sea level rise documents, all of those are dated to 2100 as “possible bad situation.” Very few people on the Earth right now will be alive in 2100, and thus they don’t care. There’s idealism about future generations and then there’s “Shit, I have a meeting and my car needs gas.” They don’t always overlap perfectly.

Now here’s a simplistic thing we could possibly do, though. I’ll try to frame this in the context of something I’ve been working on recently, but first let’s commence with a few basics. Business travel surpassed $1 trillion — with a ‘t’ — in 2013, and that number is expected to rise. Obviously, from about 2008 to 2011 the number was down — companies had to tighten belts — but now it’s skyrocketing again. You can make a really basic economic argument that global business travel is a great thing, and in many ways I’m right there with you: it stimulates new partnerships, it stimulates spending in local areas, etc, etc. Also, if you’re going to work for 40-50 years, you might as well get to take a few trips on someone else’s dime, right? It’s better than all cubicle, all-the-time.

But the thing is, all those trillion dollars worth of business trips result in planes taking off, which results in fuel usage, and the whole thing probably contributes more to climate change than car usage. So if we want to save the planet, even a little bit (seriously, just a little bit), maybe we should re-contextualize the idea of business travel. As in, there are often times it doesn’t need to happen.

When people talk about “business,” they’re really discussing the art and science of human relationships. You’re not going to sell something to a person you think is a jackass, nor are you going to work with them extensively on anything. The relationship does need to be there, and that often does require travel if two interested parties are not face-to-face or in the same office. And I don’t believe managers always need to be in the same office as their direct reports; giving people life flexibility is a good thing.

Problem is this: just like people call a meeting for something that could easily be done in 2-3 e-mails, so too do people book business travel for something that could be done on Skype or Google Hangouts or hell, even via e-mail. Let me give you a couple of examples. Last summer, some people I knew at my graduate school flew from Minneapolis to the Dallas area to try and meet up with potential companies that might eventually want to come back to my school and recruit candidates. OK. Seems like a good wine-and-dine-and-let’s-see-where-it-goes type deal. Problem is, all they did was go to the corporate offices and have introductory meetings. Important, sure, but … couldn’t that have been an e-mail thread? Ditto this part-time gig I’m doing now: I just had a conversation with a girl who flew from Austin to San Francisco to Phoenix to Memphis to Atlanta back to Austin just to “build relationships and develop culture” with others. Again, important … but also exhausting and probably could be done via a phone call or Skype or whatever else. I’ve been at countless jobs where people tell me something like “flying to San Diego to work with that team for a day or two” (from the east coast) and I wonder, “Couldn’t we all just get on a phone call or a shared doc or something?”

So basically, this is the simplistic take-away: people will frequently choose the wrong medium for a relationship-building situation, whether that’s “2-hour-long meeting” as opposed to “basic bullet point e-mail” or “back-to-back conference calls” as opposed to “Friday recaps in Google Drive.” That also extends to “flying all over hell and gone” as opposed to “maybe we can foster these connections in a different way.” Think about it: companies, even consultants (who famously fly everywhere and logically need to do so), were doing OK from 2008 to 2011 when they couldn’t green light every flight everyone wanted — hell, that period helped create the current travel boom we’re seeing. So growth can happen without flying to London to meet a person. It can. And for the sake of our planet in 150 years, maybe it should. (Again, simplistic and not the whole picture. But in a sea of neglect on this issue, I figured it was one idea.)

Ted Bauer

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