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To travel or not to travel, a.k.a. the value of being there

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To travel, or not to travel, that is the question. Throughout my career, traveling has always been part of the job. But it’s also something that always seems to be questioned. For good reasons. Traveling quickly turns into a black hole of expenses and wasted time.

In the midst of a period of extensive traveling, I’ve spent some time thinking about the value of it. About the value of “being there”, of meeting people face-to-face.

This week I had a customer meeting in Europe. The trip was short, with direct flights and many travel options to choose from. But even with those conditions, it ended up being a 20 hour day in total. You could argue that hours traveling are not the same as hours working. And you could argue that a 40 hour work week in the office cannot be compared to 40 hours on the road. But traveling is exhausting, even though in a different way than office work. So lets for the sake of argument say that those 20 hours made up half of my work week.

Was the value of being on site, meeting the customer face-to-face, worth half a work week?

(When) is it worth it?

It obviously depends on what the meeting was about, who I met, and what relationship I had to them before. I personally believe that face-to-face has tremendous value when meeting new people. Be it customers or colleagues. The trust that you build by being in the same room can never be replaced by talking on the phone or by exchanging emails. But once that trust is there, once that barrier of getting to know each other is passed, the value is reduced.

Technology exists to replace pretty much everything you get from being in the same room, except that personal touch. You can talk (phone), motion (video), draw (whiteboard) and collaborate on documents all using online tools. So a whiteboard or brainstorming session is in it self not a reason to physically meet.

The one exception I see is with a big group. Online tools work great with a handful of people, but beyond that it becomes too easy to distance your self from the meeting when on the phone. Such meetings often become more about reporting, about stating your opinion, than participating in engaged discussions. Something that being in the same room will help facilitate.

And when is it too much?

The main issue is of course that those 20 hour days quickly add up. And with long distance travel it is no longer about 20 hour days, it is more like 20 hours of travel. In each direction. A trip across the pond always end up being 40-50 hours just en route.

In Sweden we work some 45 weeks every year, how many of those are you willing to spend in an airplane or in a car? 5? 10? 25?

For me what I need to accomplish at home is not inversely related to how much travel. Spending a week on the road does not mean I have less to do at home. So I know that once I go beyond 5-10 of those longer trips in a year, it feels like I spend all my time traveling. It may be for good reasons, with important customers and meetings, but it is still taking a toll. It is still stealing time away from other tasks that I am expected to accomplish.

TL;DR

So what’s my take away from having spent time thinking about the value of traveling? I’ve come up with a new mantra for my self: Travel when you have to, avoid it when you can.

Productivity tip: Travel when you have to, avoid it when you can. Click To Tweet
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Alexander Sandstrom

Passionate product manager with a love for technology and innovation. More about me.

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