In October 2004, we teamed up with TV host Noel Edmonds and the Department for Transport, to launch the ‘Meeting without Moving Foundation’. Edmonds, who had long been a big fan of the use of remote communications in his business ventures, called on the meetings industry to recognise that unnecessary travel was costly, irresponsible, undesirable and anti-social.
We supported this idea from a managing occupational road risk perspective (MORR). This recognizes that reducing the need to travel should always be the first option when tackling the risks posed to your own employees and others. Other MORR measures like safer vehicles, safer scheduling, driver assessments and training are important. But the first question to ask is ‘do we need our people to be on the road in the first place?’
Despite the invention of the telephone, broadband and Skype, many organisations still deem it necessary to send people to face-to-face meetings. In many cases, these meetings could be accomplished using technology. Travelling to meetings uses up valuable employee time, increases CO2 emissions and carries the risk of accidents. Not to mention disruption to family life stress and so on.
There was allegedly a big reduction in long distance business travel post 9/11, but the use of screen-based comms to do business has reached a plateau. Many people seem to feel technology can be good for ‘maintenance meetings’ and doing business with those with whom we are already familiar. But the use of telephone or I.T. based conferencing can make interaction with new people, seem quite artificial and disembodied. So much of human communication is non-verbal, and based on minute visual signals, which even the best technology does not seem to pick up. And nothing is as disheartening as when the technology just refuses to work.
And yet, if we are going to take reducing the downsides of business travel seriously, we are all going to have to do much better at mastering the art of effective communication without travelling.
How many people on our road network are going to business meetings and conferences when they could be ‘doing the business’ just as well remotely? They’d also be helping to save time, money, lives and the planet? Why is there not an obligation on all events organisers to offer a remote participation option?
Much of the time it is because people perceive video and dial-in technology as being too limited and ineffective. Why is this? Working together creatively, but via remote comms, requires new skills which not everyone has.
What research and development can be put in hand to solve these challenges? What is Government doing to show the way ahead here by insisting maximum use of remote comms in the Civil Service and all publicly funded bodies?
The Meeting with Moving Foundation folded, perhaps because the trend towards greater use of technology was becoming better established. But the need for us all to reduce unnecessary travel to the absolute minimum is still with us. The presumption that meetings, first meetings particularly, should be face-to-face, is still very much the norm. How far away are we from there being a natural presumption that business travel (other than to perform an essential purpose that cannot be accomplished any other way) is socially and environmentally irresponsible? Every line manager needs to constantly ask their direct reports “is your journey really necessary?
And every employee whose job involves travelling needs to ask themselves, “Am I only travelling because I like the ‘me time’ out of this office which this affords me”; or “is it because I’m technophobic and in the past I have had some poor experiences trying to use remote comms, which didn’t work for me?”
The shift to ‘meeting without moving’ still has a long way to go. There are many barriers to be better researched and overcome. But as David Attenborough said recently at Davos (could anyone have taken part in that meeting remotely?) the environmental time bomb is ticking away and we’re into the last hour. Are the huge interests which are now delivering remote business comms working together with all key stakeholders to bring about a ‘meeting without moving’ revolution? There’s still a load of work to be done.