We’re still months away from getting back to “normal” in response to COVID-19, which has upended virtually every aspect of business operations, including training and development. Many companies once sent employees across the country for intensive training or in-person onboarding for staff intended to be remote. But travel-related training is virtually nonexistent these days, and it’s hard to know if and when that might change.
We reached out to training and development professionals to learn about their plans for travel policies for 2021 and beyond. Specifically, we wanted to know what they have learned over the past year about whether training-related travel will return, how COVID-19 has impacted their training travel budgets, how they expect those budgets will be impacted in the future, and what guidelines they will be putting in place if and when they do resume training-related travel.
Most companies didn’t have a choice when it came to halting their travel plans. While this wasn’t a voluntary, cost-saving measure, it certainly did save costs for organizations that were no longer paying for airfare and hotel stays to send staff around the country. Many of these companies haven’t let that money sit in the bank; they’ve reinvested in the technology and tools needed to facilitate training and collaboration remotely.
“The most immediate budget reallocation of previous T&D funds went into new technology allowing us to service our customers as best we could remotely,” says Jim Pendergast, senior vice president at altLINE, a division of The Southern Bank Company managing alternative financing for commercial customers.
Pre-pandemic, altLINE’s reps and consultants frequently traveled to their customers’ business places to perform services, but that obviously changed with COVID-related restrictions. “There’s no substitute for real-time, in-person collaboration, but that also doesn’t mean you rest on your laurels, using only whatever software you happened to have at the start of all this,” Pendergast says.
“We saw other organizations taking a similar approach. Previous budget lines that went exclusively toward things like conference fees to reimbursing gas in company cars went to supportive technology, either to broaden access to online developmental materials or to better meet the interactive needs of clients remotely,” Pendergast adds. “Think improved document and project management software, collaborative conferencing tools, and better approaches to virtual presentations.”
A Wait-and-See Approach
At the start of the pandemic, many people expected business disruptions to last a matter of weeks before the world returned to normal. Nearly a year later, companies and employees alike have, by and large, come to grips with the idea that there’s just no reliable way to predict when things will get back to “normal” or if they ever will.
“I don’t expect that traveling for training will resume before summer, perhaps even later,” says Stefan Chekanov, CEO of Brosix. “It all depends on the vaccination dynamics that will vary between countries.”
“In our case, we had to be very careful with budgets, so we allocated a significantly smaller amount of money for traveling. Roughly speaking, our travel budget was cut in half to make sure we have enough money to cover all other expenses in case the crisis lasts,” says Chekanov.
“Having in mind the current situation in most European countries, I don’t think we will even reconsider the travel budget in the next six months. The last thing I want is to send people abroad while it’s still dangerous. Plus, I don’t think some events will be possible to be held in person until the pandemic calms,” Chekanov adds.
Why Were We Traveling in the First Place?
At one point, physically traveling to where training was being held was really the only way to effectively conduct that training. While there hasn’t necessarily been any one breakthrough development to wipe away the advantage of in-person training and development, advances in telecommunication technology over the last couple decades have steadily eroded the relative benefits.
“Even before the pandemic, being away at a conference for a week was becoming untenable,” says Laura Baldwin, president of O’Reilly Media. “Rather than having to step away to learn, learning can be done from anywhere at any time – even while in the midst of a work project. Learning in the flow of work will come to the forefront in 2021 through online platforms, resources, and tools.”
Baldwin argues that this will not only save the time and money required to travel for training but also make training more flexible and effective. “Team members will be empowered to learn in quick bursts of knowledge that help propel their immediate projects forward. This will be a game-changer for the worker of the future.”
Down but Not Out
Many observers believe there will always be a place for business travel for various purposes in the future but that the world’s experience in coping without that travel for the last year means such travel will be greatly diminished.
“More than any other niche industry, business travel was decimated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Andrew Jezic, founding partner at the Law Offices of Jezic and Moyse. “Some schools of thought suggest business travel will never again be what it was. With the surge of teleconferencing technology in response to the quarantine lockdowns, it has become a poorly kept secret that in terms of business communications, there isn’t much that can be accomplished in person that can’t be accomplished virtually.”
“This has changed the business travel model and will continue to do so,” Jezic adds. “While there is sure to be a business travel industry going forward, it is likely to be vastly smaller. Only the most important trips will be undertaken, and prices for business class travel is likely to be far higher than in previous years.”
One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it forced the world to change how it does business is the fact that companies have had months and months of exposure to alternative ways of doing business. The most obvious example is the widespread shift to remote work for many formerly office-based staff. But training-related travel has also taken a hit, and companies are rethinking the need for such travel in the future.