Covid will have a K-shaped effect on business travel, based on how professionals recalibrate their priorities in the future

On March 12, we began to migrate our team to work from home. We were able to do this efficiently and quickly because of the investments we made years ago to embrace the cloud. If on March 12th you would have asked me to guess what 2020 & the 2020s would look like, I sensed that a pandemic would accelerate the macro-trends that were already favoring us, but in the near-term, it felt like the calm before the storm.

In the end, we had our best year ever in 2020. I am fortunate to be able to work during the pandemic. As an employer, I count my blessings to have avoided layoffs and furloughs. In fact, being able to reward the team’s solid contributions was a highlight in an otherwise challenging year. It’s been bittersweet because of the massive amount of pain and destruction around us. We’re not alone: there’s clearly a K-shaped recovery (even within sectors that are affected, i.e. restaurants that can deliver and offer pick up may be doing better than ever). The reality is our solid year had more to do with the tough decisions we made back in 2016/17 to reinvest like a madman. While those affected remain in shock, I also realize that for fifteen years, I have gone to bed fearing one factor or another could take down our business overnight.

On a personal level, I never once lost my sense of privilege. I eliminated a lot of the needless complexity I’d introduced in my life, which over the years led to burnout and prolonged anxiety and trauma. Yet this year, by doing less and focusing more than ever, I sensed a simplicity I’d not experienced all my life.

While finally adhering to “hiring slow, firing fast,” we have nonetheless continued to hire. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t changed my priorities. More than ever, I start off by asking WHY? instead of jumping straight to the WHO/WHAT/WHEN/WHERE.

To that end, I think many in the business world will splinter into two groups.

Some can’t wait to get back on the road, travel to conferences and conventions. Without a doubt, there are a lot of industry friends I miss, cities I can’t wait to return to, and so on. But I’d be lying if I said I will travel as much as I did to as many events as I used to. Traveling less also meant spending more time with my kids.

As such, I think an equally large group will probably not find the corporate and startup racket worth it, with the commensurate travel that comes with it (and living in a suitcase, packing for your next trip before having unpacked from your last one). For many, they realized this year that less is more, they don’t necessarily need to chase a development trajectory they assumed was the only path. We in business have been conditioned to value ourselves as a function of our peers; it’s understandable, but I’m not sure in the end it’s sustainable or healthy.

Many will flee cities, just as many will be drawn to them by a reset in rents and living costs. Similarly, many will depart corporate life just as new players enter the industry. But killing oneself to provide for one’s family when said family may have been content with the simpler things in life is probably the one long-term impact I hope sticks around.

To each their own, but any article about the future of business travel or offices needs to take into account the social change we have yet to fully experience, instead of pretending that people’s priorities haven’t changed.

You don’t have to outrun the bear, you have to outrun others.