Successful leaders know that the culture they create and sustain is strongly linked to performance. However, after two years of disruption, the relationship between companies and colleagues—the essence of that culture— is at a point of inflection. People feel more empowered than ever to choose their own path. They want to live life on their own terms. While this trend presents some short-term challenges, there are longer-term opportunities. The paradox between a strong culture and less physically connected people is the challenge of our times. If you want to attract and retain the best people, you must be prepared to embrace the new world of flexible work. Progressive companies will create a generational advantage over the competition.
Lockdowns and travel restrictions forced companies to examine how dispersed workers could collaborate. Perspectives evolved throughout the pandemic. Year one was about maintaining basic productivity and existing relationships. In year two, the dialogue became more complex. New relationships had to be forged in an environment of acute uncertainty and constant change. This far more profound challenge hits at the very core of what the pandemic took from us: face-to-face interactions. Managing and promoting in-person meetings has moved from the domain of logistics to becoming a necessary strategic function in any organization.
If you put travel, meetings, mobility, engagement and collaboration into one area of expertise, and designate it “interaction,” this poses a critical question: is interaction part of the conversation in the most senior levels of your company? Boards are rightly asking leaders how they are supporting teams in a competitive environment for talent. A reactive approach is no longer acceptable.
For many organizations, the shift is a direct result of the office no longer being the primary collaboration space. Videoconferencing was a useful proxy for some meetings and conference calls but has proven itself to be no substitute for in-person relationship building. Enter travel and meetings—areas that increasingly should be managed together—to drive interactions and culture building.
Think about it: the purpose of most business trips is to go and meet people. Your organization’s travel is now more than just about getting from A to B. It connects employees to company culture. We are already seeing signs that the decline of the daily office commute is driving the need for more coordinated travel that brings colleagues together at regular intervals. In fact, without the office at the core, travel becomes the primary driver of culture. People are exchanging commuter passes to attend monthly or quarterly meetings with colleagues, often a happy trade-off for both company and employee. But this means companies need to pay attention to those opportunities lest they become, like home offices, a commoditized employee experience.
We are working with companies on how to effectively support and manage this growing travel need, recognizing that these trips are critical culture-building opportunities and a major investment in employees. Whereas offices with amenities in prime locations may have been the cultural anchor of the past generation, travel and meetings can fill that gap for the next while still providing the necessary flexibility that employees now expect. And this is not a discretionary proposition—the latest Fortune/Deloitte CEO survey in January found labor and skills shortages the number-one concern for CEOs (ahead of even the pandemic and supply chain disruption).
The mindset shift is taking place among our clients, across all types of organizations. Clients are rethinking how teams interact and re-evaluating internal travel and meetings. Traditionally believed to have less ROI than cash-generating sales and client meetings, the value of internal interactions for boosting team cohesion, creativity and productivity is gaining recognition. Our research for the 2022 Global Meetings & Events Forecast found internal meetings is the category expected to show the most growth in 2022.
We are increasingly looking at a hybrid working world that blends the in-person and virtual—at offices, at home and on the road. Companies need to have the expertise to solve for all environments. This points to a more integrated future, an evolution of technology and mindset where you can own and manage the full spectrum of interactions—from metaverse to meeting rooms to convention centers and community cafés—all on one platform.
As an increasingly core business function, interaction becomes more central in other business priorities—priorities that are changing. Customers, partners and employees want to know they are working for responsible, sustainable and inclusive organizations. Leaders know that environment, social and governance (ESG) is crucial to protecting brand reputation and future-proofing their brands. In a recent EY survey of 2,000 CEOs, a conclusive 99% said they factor ESG and sustainability into their buying strategies. This function must meet the strategic needs and elevate the role it plays in how the company operates. All these trends, some having accelerated in the last two years, are coming together to create an inflection point for “interaction” within organizations. With the increasing reach and impact of this function on your operations and outcomes, now is the time to make sure its voice is heard in the C-Suite.