It’s been a surreal experience for anyone hoping to travel to, from, or within Europe. It might be a week; perhaps a month until everything is cleared up—or perhaps two years, like the last time Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 1821. This is surely a crisis, having grounded more aircraft than 9/11 did. But what about looking for opportunity in the midst of this chaos?
This is particularly relevant for businesses dependent on air travel. Our business models are being tested, as is our corporate culture—especially our flexibility. We need to re-examine—and ask our clients and business partners to re-examine—our assumptions about the need for physical presence. Long-held beliefs about what can and cannot be done at a distance, based on generations of human contact and decades of limited-bandwidth telecommunications, need to be tested now. The obvious question is, what opportunity do we have to deliver value to our customers—in existing or new markets—using other methods than the air travel on which we have become dependent?
One option is simply to replace travel with technologically intermediated contact. True, studies on virtual teams have shown that they perform better if they meet physically some of the time, at least at the beginning of their work together and periodically thereafter. But this need is hardly constant. In addition, if the members of the team (or by extension, a supplier and a client) know one another well, the need to meet in person is lower. Add to this the increasing bandwidth of telepresence technology, in which the three main elements of communication—tone of voice, non-verbal signals and words—are all clear, and it becomes evident that most of what happens in face-to-face meetings can also happen virtually. Often, all that is missing is the willingness to try, and the patience to perfect the process.
Still, what if part of your value-added is not only communication, but also shared experience? First, get on the phone (or better, video chat) with clients and find out how they are being affected—not only in their work with you, but throughout their business. Find out what’s needed: parallel instruction for clients or workers, different kinds of meetings. Such support is not expensive, and only serves to deepen the relationship. And proactivity in making this kind of offer is rewarded in the longer term.
Second, quickly offer alternatives to disrupted plans. An obvious one is to postpone the planned activity. But opportunity-seeking organizations would go further, introducing technologically mediated solutions —even imperfect ones. Remember that a disruption such as the present crisis means clients are likely to be more forgiving of an imperfect solution and more willing to work with you to perfect it.
Third, look for ways to make positive examples of your opportunistic activities. People in your and your clients’ organizations will be shaken by the crisis. But every successful change leader knows that the stories people tell about a change are stronger determinants of their future behaviour than the change itself.
I am not saying that telepresence is the solution to all travel challenges. But using the crisis to stretch our applications of technology and, more importantly, to stimulate the proactive behaviour of our people and flexible, imaginative collaboration with customers, is an opportunity we should not miss.
Maury Peiperl is professor of leadership and strategic change at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. Comment at email@example.com