Bizarre as this sounds, you'll agree it's not uncommon. In fact, your travels may resemble this pattern. Like it or not, millions are taking flight and hitting the road in ever-astounding numbers, grinning and bearing the travel struggles along with their Samsonites and laptops.
Meanwhile, the folks at home think you're on the equivalent of a luxury cruise and feign little sympathy, paying only scant attention when you complain of flight delays and customs lines. They're the ones who are keeping the office activities running; they're the ones handling emergencies as well as day-to-day loads. And, there's more to come. As companies increase their global business, HR managers will likely increase their level of travel.
Managing this travel requires thought, experience and skill. Doubtless, you've come up with your own techniques to stay in touch with your staff and to keep activities moving effectively. But Workforce has talked to savvy professional travelers — HR and otherwise — and uncovered even more top-notch ways to maximize travel time, stay healthy, remain focused and maintain continuity at the office.
You're not imagining it. There are more travelers.
Whether for conventions, a sales trip or a national staff meeting, business professionals are flying across country and across the world in increasing numbers. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of America, the following trends are being established by U.S. business travelers:
- Twenty-four percent of the U.S. population travels for business each year.
- There were 38.4 million business travelers in 1994, a record high.
- Total business trips reached 275 million in 1995.
- The average number of trips annually per traveler is 5.7.
- Although only half of all business travelers take only one or two trips per year, 15 percent (or 5.7 million) take 10 or more trips.
- The main purpose of 50 percent of all business travelers' trips in 1994 was to attend a convention, meeting or trade show.
- Nearly 48 percent of business travelers use their own car; 31 percent use airlines.
Make your needs known.
Business travel increasingly can be demanding and wearisome. "It's more and more difficult these days," says Lailia Rach, dean of the Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York City-based New York University.
And although the hospitality industry is just beginning to respond, there are some critically important features that business travelers need. Look at hotel rooms. Business travelers want rooms that allow them to operate as if they were in their offices at home. They expect a good working desk with good lighting.
In fact, what's the first thing most people do after they enter hotel rooms? Plug in their computers and download their e-mail. They want a phone system with multiple lines and data ports that allow e-mail access to the office. They don't want to have to get down on their hands and knees, plug in their laptops and hit their heads on the underside of the desk. They want fax machines in the room, voicemail systems and multiple lines so they can have conference calls or multiple calls without worrying about missing a beat.
According to Rach, making your needs known with hotel managers is a first step in getting these amenities into hotels. The business center is another important aspect for business travelers. How many operate during traditional business hours? If a business center isn't open, imagine the inconvenience for the business traveler who's harried about creating copies for a presentation before the meeting. The least likely time a businessperson needs the center is between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (exactly when meetings are being held), and that's typically when they're open.
Some hotels are noteworthy for their amenities. For example, the Swisshotel Group (the Drake in New York) has a business center with small conference rooms for guests to use for meetings instead of being confined to their hotel suites or noisy hotel bars. The conference rooms have regular copiers, color copiers, complete software for Macintosh and IBM computers, and they're set up for the complete business needs of the traveler. Many of the Westin hotels have in-room fax machines, business centers with extended hours and an array of equipment for use. And, more and more of the upscale chains are including data ports in their one- and two-line telephones.
Stay on track.
Susan Salazar, vice president of human resources for Seattle-based Westin Hotels and Resorts epitomizes the international traveling warrior. Spending nearly 40 percent of her time out of the office for a company whose growth will be 40 percent international, Salazar believes managing the work while traveling is all about whom you hire and how you train them.
"There's no magic," she says. "Managing your function from the road depends on the caliber of people you have around as well as the technology. If you have people working with you who need constant and direct communication, it doesn't work because you're not there."
It comes down to getting people with the right skills and developing relationships with them that allow effective communication. Salazar believes it starts in the interview process during which you determine how independent the individual is, as well as how strong a sense of focus he or she has. "If the person has come from a previous job that has supported independence and not a micromanagement mentality, you have a chance that he or she's going to be a person you can use well in this capacity."
After you've hired with that perspective, it's important to create a communication and development pattern that gives clear and complete expectations. At this point, she says, the manager must look at the tangible and intangible parts of the job and assess what it takes to accomplish what needs to be done. Do employees have the information they need to make decisions based on clearly stated expectations?
"This is the most difficult part of the development piece, but once you create an open-book communications style so they have the information they need, you become a coordinator or strategic leader as opposed to a day-to-day project manager."
Talk with Lucy Sorrentini, director of global assignments at New York City-based Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc., and she'll also tell you that hiring and training autonomous, self-assured people in support roles is key. Empowering them to act and make decisions is the next step.
"Think first about the work at the office and how it's accomplished," she says. "Next, figure out ways the staff can take care of that as much as possible so your desk is clearer when you return." In Sorrentini's case, the huge bulk of her work is communications.
"E-mail and phone calls could easily take up 80 percent of my day," she says, "so when I'm not there to handle that volume, my secretary is the one who has to handle it. She gets those calls and then channels them to other members of the department or responds on my behalf."
Sorrentini's assistant always responds to the e-mails within 24 hours -- even if just to acknowledge it and state that Sorrentini or someone else will follow up. Sorrentini receives between 75 and 100 e-mails daily as well as 30 to 40 phone calls. Her secretary prints the e-mail and includes the response for Sorrentini to read upon her return. "That way things aren't stacked up so when I get back I don't have a million people looking to kill me because I haven't responded," she says.
Many times these responses are complete so that the situation is resolved; other times Sorrentini receives information about what else needs to be researched and what the staff already has accomplished.
The assistant uses the same process for voicemail messages. She returns all calls and either forwards the message or simply records the call with the date and everything that has occurred up to Sorrentini's return. Sorrentini receives a list of the main messages, but has a summary sheet that gives her a list of everything that has happened while she was out of the office. "Normally, when I get back from travel, I get in a couple of hours early or on Sunday and go through my mail so I can get the day started more normally. [My ability to accomplish this] is a tribute to my secretary."
Work anywhere, any time.
Then there's the ultimate in aiding business travelers -- the virtual office -- which allows you to keep in touch with the office without skipping a beat. Indeed, 3Com Co., a Santa Clara-based technology firm, makes domestic and international travel just as simple as flextime and telecommuting.
The organization, which has 5,000 employees and also has offices in London, Dublin, Tel Aviv, San Diego and Boston, has created a different mentality in the way people operate. "It's really possible to work anywhere, any time," says Debra Engel, vice president of corporate services. It's simply a way of life at 3Com. People are equipped with portable PCs or Macs and conceive their work and their offices [as virtually] wherever they -- and their portables -- are. "Anything that's available to me in the office is essentially available to me through my [portable] computer and through the network. I can access that anywhere in the world," she says.
But, ultimately, says Engel, the most beneficial way to approach travel is to eliminate it as much as possible. "The company offers other alternatives to attending meetings, so the need to travel is diminished. Yes, there has to be a certain amount of face-to-face contact with customers and organizations outside the company, but managers try to keep it to as little as possible."
Most 3Com meetings use videoconferencing or teleconferencing technologies. "3Com's people are distributed so widely that it has become second nature to just plan your schedule, and you're where you need to be; when there's a meeting, you simply figure out how to access it."
For example, if employees prefer to be at the meeting, there are major videoconferencing centers around the world where they can rent time. Most, however, simply call in to one of the conferencing systems and enter the meeting via their telephones. They can do this from an office, from home, or from their cellular phones anywhere in the world. These are not mere squawk-boxes that distort sound and make the caller scream every time he or she can't hear. Sophisticated teleconferencing technology allows several people to call in to join the conversation in a very natural way, and even listen to prior minutes of the meeting so they can find out what they've missed.
3Com uses a system called Meeting Place™ to accomplish this. The caller has a series of numbers to dial and a series of codes. One code allows the traveler to access minutes of the meeting, and another allows the person to enter the meeting immediately.
Because employees are distributed globally, the biggest challenge is the timing of the meetings. They figure out meeting times based on six or seven time slots. Coordinating meetings between locations in Europe and America is doable, as is coordinating California with Asia. Employees simply set up their workdays according to the meeting times, regardless of the "real" time of day in their time zone. For example, when Engel has a lot of evening calls and conferences, she may start her day at noon and take three or four hours of personal time out of the middle of the day to attend to errands or other important activities. "3Com is very aggressive about giving employees flexibility to define when they work and where they work. When a company spends a lot of money on technology, employees really do have the opportunity to operate without constraints."
Be a healthy traveler.
Still, travel is necessary. James Wilkerson, vice president of human resources and administration of Houston-based ABB Vetco Gray, a manufacturer in the petroleum industry, travels about 25 percent of the time. He's out of the United States on average one week per month and confronts the challenges of staying fit and alert all the time. "I try to maintain the same kind of routine work schedule when I'm overseas that I do when I'm here," he says. "Every day, I get up at least an hour early and get some form of exercise. I exercise, eat breakfast, go into the office and work hard in the morning, leaving the routine work for the afternoon. When possible, I schedule my appointments and teleconferencing around my peak morning energy."
One challenge, he says, is eating correctly. It's always tempting to overeat and over drink. But, it's a mistake you only make a few times, he says. "Your body is stressed out enough trying to adjust to the time zone and sleep deficit. If you stress it more with strange food or by drinking a lot of booze, you're putting yourself in double jeopardy."
Traveling HR execs also can prevent jet lag, motion sickness, and most other travel-related physical problems through better planning and by using common sense, says Donald Moeller, a gastrointestinal specialist at Kansas City, Kansas-based Bethany Medical Center
"Jet lag occurs when the body's normal rhythms are disrupted, usually when a traveler crosses three or more time zones. Traveling west, which lengthens the day, is easier than traveling east, which shortens it." Common symptoms include fatigue, irritability, headache, insomnia, impaired coordination and difficulty doing complex tasks. How do you help prevent jet lag?
Moeller says to eat a light meal and get a good night's sleep before leaving. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and go to bed at the local bedtime when you arrive at your destination. Other common-sense tips: Drink lots of water during the flight and after arrival; eat lightly during the flight; get some exercise when you arrive at your destination -- or if you have enough time between connecting flights, take a walk; if possible, spend some time in the daylight. If you want to use any over-the-counter substances, you might want to doublecheck with your physician first.
Travel is exciting, and it's also a necessity in today's marketplace, whether domestic or global. It's an opportunity to meet face-to-face with key people, learn directly from experts and experience aspects of your job that enrich performance. But, it also takes its toll on you, the traveler, and those you leave at home. With planning and the right information, you can make the most of the experience -- and make it a more pleasant, as well as effective, business endeavor.
Workforce, May 1997, Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 68-76.