Attacks curtail the era of the 'road warrior'
LOS ANGELES — Before Sept. 11, corporate dealmakers measured their status, at least partly, in terms of frequent-flier miles and nights spent in four-star hotels.
Logging air miles was a badge of business honor - a sign that you were a high achiever, indispensable.
But in the past month, the "road warrior" culture has changed in significant - and probably permanent - ways.
While no one is declaring the end of face-to-face meetings or agreements sealed by a handshake, concern about the safety of air travel is prompting many companies to rethink the priority they place on travel.
The results could be far-reaching: Managers will likely spend more nights at home with their families. Employee morale could rise. And the videoconference - which had been struggling to move beyond an era of jerky, slow-motion technology - appears set for widespread adoption.
"The events of Sept. 11 are going to put a new mindset and a needed degree of discipline around how we conduct meetings and how we conduct business," says Harold Hillman, vice president of learning and leadership at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J. The company, which for a time restricted "noncritical" travel, has seen a rise in videoconferencing.
Other companies, such as Bechtel Group Inc. in San Francisco and Syngenta Crop Protection in Greensboro, N.C., have turned to video and the telephone as alternatives to getting on a plane.
Many agree it's more than a temporary phenomenon.
In a survey of 5,600 companies, more than one-third say business travel will be curtailed as a result of the terrorist attacks.
And in a sign of how the culture of American workplaces has changed, more than half said employees will not consider travel as glamorous, according to the survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.
"I believe that a portion of the business trips that had been flown could have been handled in other ways," says Joyce Gioia, co-founder of The Herman Group, a consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C., who herself logs 150,000 air miles a year. But "we are so conditioned to believe that we have to handle [business] with a face-to-face meeting."
Why? The main reason, experts say, is the aura of glamour and upward mobility that attended jobs with frequent travel involved. Being viewed as a go-getter, willing to spend nights away from home to win new sales or clients, is worth something in today's pink-slip-laden economy.
"There's no question that there are attributes to travel that are self-gratifying," says Rolfe Shellenberger, a Palm Desert, Calif., business-travel consultant for Runzheimer International. "That is one of the reasons frequent-flying programs have been a tremendous success."
At the same time, today's senior leadership is not known for its prowess at e-mail, let alone videoconferencing.
Yet a handful of factors - a concern about air safety, increased delays at airports, reduced flight service, and a slowing economy - are converging for the first time in a way that could force a long-term change.
Already, that's been good news for the video- and teleconferencing industries.
"Almost immediately after the events, the phone started ringing off the hook," says Rick McKinney of VTC Services, seller of videoconferencing technology in Englewood, Colo. "Volume is up 40 to 50 percent."
A lot of that business in the past few weeks has come from companies that had declined to purchase equipment earlier this year, mainly for "budget reasons," he says.
"Now [these companies] are getting so much resistance from their own employees" about flying, Mr. McKinney contends, that they are calling back and asking if they can still move forward.
The rush toward high-tech meeting equipment also comes at a time when the technology and the cost have greatly improved.
Just a few years ago, it could cost $50,000 to $60,000 to rig a single room for videoconferencing. Meanwhile, the line would drop, there would be a delay in seeing people move around the room and a delay between when their lips move and when viewers hear the words. Today a company can get superior technology for less than $10,000.
Also, a study released earlier this year by WorldCom found that a business trip is seven times more expensive than holding an audio conference call (when you factor in hotel stay, rental car, and meals), and three times more expensive than videoconferences.
That's not to say that the age of business travel is over.
From corporate jets to business-class seats, the budget line for air travel is shrinking, but it won't be deleted any time soon.
The key factor, experts say, will be what is the most effective way to get a specific task done.
A great deal of communication "is based on nonverbals," says Mr. Hillman of Prudential Financial. "It's sometimes a little bit difficult with virtual meetings to pick up on cues such as body tension, specific facial features."
Technology can also exaggerate interpersonal failings, says Jana Kemp, owner of Meeting & Management Essentials in Boise, Idaho. "If they are poor face to face, they will be horrible in a technology environment."
Ms. Gioia of The Herman Group recently participated in a videoconference with people in four different locations. "We could see them... But there were times we had to ask people to repeat what they said."
Still, even those who sell the technology say the goal is not to replace all face-to-face communication with a TV monitor. "If there's a misnomer, it's that the technology is an either/or," says Neal Lulofs, manager of conferencing services at WorldCom, which has also seen conferencing sales increase. "It's not an either/or. It's finding the right time to use the right medium. And many times, that means getting on a plane and meeting face to face with that important customer."
Still, Mr. Lulofs is a big video user.
A few days after the attacks, he cancelled a business trip to meet with colleagues and instead met via videoconference. "It was fine. What we lost out on was the casual conversations and camaraderie and going out to dinner that night."
In addition, he got to go home to his wife that night. "Beyond the cost savings, there are those less tangible but equally important [factors]." "If you're taking 40 to 50 trips a year, what if you cut that back to 25 or 30. You're probably seeing the people you need to see as much as you need to, and you're able to get more balance in your life - see your kid's soccer game - and even have more hours to work."