When telepresence first gained attention in the early 2000s, pundits speculated that virtual conferencing would one day replace most business travel and save companies millions in travel spend every year. They had good reasons for those predictions, too. Video conferencing over IP was relatively new, had incredible potential to scale, and already had some serious early adopters such as Cisco and Accenture. 

Despite the steady increase in video conferencing adoption over the past decade, though, business travel never truly experienced the downturn that people expected. In fact, US business travel spend increased from $262 billion in 2012 to $334.2 billion in 2019. Before the onset of COVID-19, professionals took more trips than ever. What happened to the prophecies around video conferencing?

Video conferencing slowly gained traction over the last decade as technologies advanced and prices dropped. At the same time, business travel also saw a paralleled increase. Companies simply valued face-to-face interactions more than virtual meetings, touting that in-person meetings fostered better collaboration and drove customer satisfaction.

The COVID-19 lockdowns changed everything

When the COVID-19 lockdowns struck, business travel essentially vanished overnight. In an April survey by the Global Business Travel Association, almost every member of the group canceled or suspended international business travel. Another 92% canceled all or most domestic business travel. 

Communications tools such as team messaging and video conferencing suddenly became every organization’s best friend. Employees working from home could continue collaborating and drive business operations. According to App Annie, users downloaded a whopping 62 million business apps worldwide in March—a 45% increase week-over-week and a 90% increase from the previous year’s weekly average, according to App Annie. These apps helped organizations keep their heads above water while offices stayed closed.

A staggered return to work

As restrictions begin to loosen and organizations return to work, however, employers might be reluctant to resume business travel in the near future. Employee safety is the number one concern, and employees might not feel comfortable hopping into taxis, planes, and hotels with a virus still floating around. A survey by the US Travel Association and MMGY Travel Intelligence found that only 22% of respondents would be eager to travel for business after COVID-19 passes.

Similarly, employers are also looking to cut costs for the foreseeable future. A PwC survey on 277 finance leaders found that 80% expect their companies to implement cost-containment measures as a result of COVID-19 disruptions. 

The most likely scenario is that organizations will allow travel only for absolutely essential purposes. From executive board meetings to trade shows, organizations will have to assess whether certain events are worth the risk. Organizations will rely on communications technology like video conferencing to fill the gaps, at least until COVID-19 slowly clears.

When should employees choose video conferencing over business travel? Here are a few scenarios to consider:

1. Employee networking 

Traveling to off-sites might have been an excellent networking experience for colleagues prior to COVID-19, but it’s simply not worthwhile now. Sure, face-to-face interactions facilitate human connections, and research tells us in-person socializing builds stronger relationships, but video conferencing offers the same levels of presence without requiring trips across different time zones and countries.

Teams can leverage video conferencing to help develop stronger employee relationships through check-in meetings and virtual happy hours. When it’s time to collaborate, video conferencing trumps messaging and emails by allowing colleagues to see and hear one another.

2. Strengthening client relationships

Meeting clients face-to-face is essential to starting off new relationships strong, but chances are that clients are apprehensive about traveling too—at least for the next few months. Traveling to client sites can make relationship-building uncomfortable, especially if representatives plan to work closely with clients.

Relationship development meetings and brainstorming sessions can be easily hosted over video conferencing. Screen sharing acts as a substitute for meeting room presentations, while cloud collaboration services like Google Drive allow meeting participants to work on files together in real time.

3. Town halls

Flying leaders from different parts of the country (or world) for large quarterly business reviews or sales meetings might have been a smart strategy before, but the idea of cramming entire departments into large meeting rooms or town halls in the post-COVID-19 world won’t make sense. 

Save time and money by hosting large meetings over video. Speakers and attendees can join from anywhere in the world while staying safe, and the time saved on traveling, commuting, and casual hallway conversations can be spent on covering more topics in the meeting.

4. Talent recruitment

In the past few years, organizations have begun vetting and hiring candidates without ever meeting them in person. Now that traveling to offices might not be in any candidate’s best interests, it’s time HR teams fully embraced the power of recruiting over virtual meetings. Organizations can use video conferencing to access a wider talent pool outside of their geographical limits and get employees started despite keeping offices closed or half-open.

Substitute business travel with the right tools

Experts predict that business trips will eventually recover as face-to-face meetings are still king, but for the sake of employee safety, travel won’t be as prolific in the near future (see: Will Communications Technology Finally Replace Business Travel?). Circumstances that would’ve constituted travel before COVID-19 can now take place over virtual meetings, ensuring employee safety while containing overhead as much as possible.

Scaling down business travel doesn’t have to hinder productivity. With the right technology, employees can continue collaborating and simulate the experience of face-to-face interactions from any location. Unified communications solutions such as the RingCentral app combine team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single platform. Employees can effortlessly switch between different modes of communication, moving from messaging to video meetings with a single click. 

Organizations with a systematic approach towards meetings are fully prepared to communicate and collaborate in the post-COVID-19 workplace. Make sure your organization doesn’t revert to old business travel habits and ensure a safe work environment for your colleagues.