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Will Communications Technology Replace Business Travel?


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In the late 2000s, Accenture wanted to streamline employee collaboration for its 180,000 employees distributed across offices in 40 different countries. They devised a plan: deploy high-end telepresence technology that would allow workers to interact face to face from anywhere in the world.

At that time, pundits predicted that video conferencing was poised to become a staple in every office and, as a result, business travel would substantially decrease. In fact, two environmental groups estimated that web-based and conventional video conferencing technology could reduce business travel by up to 20%.

That didn’t happen, however. Despite a steady increase in adoption of video conferencing over the past decade, business travel also rose. U.S business travel costs increased from $262 billion in 2012 to $334.2 billion in 2019. It’s clear that corporate leaders still prefer in-person, face-to-face meetings over digital communications.

As we enter a new decade, though, the scope of business travel is changing dramatically. Several factors are poised to upend business travel, and this time things might be permanent. Let’s take a look at how communications technology has changed and what to expect in the coming years.

Communications and collaboration tools: then and now  

Early video conferencing solutions were expensive. Between 2005 and 2010, HD video conferencing equipment cost anywhere between $5,000 and $6,000, while higher-end telepresence rooms with three to four huge displays, custom lighting, and acoustics ran anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000. At the same time, the technology was often complex and kludgy. For example, in order to launch a telepresence conference, IT personnel needed the IP address of the destination site to connect both rooms together. Telepresence was not only cost-prohibitive, but experimental in its infancy.

Video conferencing on PCs wasn’t yet feasible either. Many computers weren’t equipped with built-in webcams, and if they were, Internet speeds weren’t fast enough to provide consistent, reliable, high-quality video. With such a high barrier to entry, most organizations simply weren’t invested in video conferencing adoption.

Technology caught up in the last decade, however. For example, every laptop now has a built-in webcam and the processing power to produce high-quality video and audio. Better communications solutions entered the market, such as unified communications that allow employees to easily message, video, or call using a single app on their computers or mobile devices. 

COVID-19 jumpstarts remote work

Business travel ground to a halt amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In an April survey by the Global Business Travel Association, an industry group for corporate travel managers, almost every member of the group canceled or suspended international business travel. Another 92% canceled all or most domestic business travel. 

As organizations around the world mandated that employees work from home, video conferencing and team messaging applications suddenly became an all-important necessity. In March, during the first week of large-scale, stay-at-home orders, users downloaded a whopping 62 million business apps worldwide—a 45% increase week-over-week and a 90% increase from the previous year’s weekly average, according to App Annie. 

As 62% of Americans work from home during the pandemic, organizations have undergone a crash course in remote work. To their surprise, it’s been wildly successful. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter will now allow employees to work from home for the rest of the year, and experts declare that remote work will persevere post-COVID-19

5G, AI, and virtual reality will transform communications technology

Several future technologies will revolutionize workplace communications, making virtual meetings even more compelling for businesses.

  • 5G: In the coming years, the next-generation network will provide better connection speeds, reduced latency, and an overall improved communications experience. 5G will allow remote employees to be anywhere in the world and collaborate with the highest reliability, enabling a further distributed workforce. (See: How 5G Will Transform the Way We Work.)
  • Virtual Reality: Employees will have the ability to hold meetings in virtual rooms. They can appear as holographic avatars and collaborate on 3D designs together, jot notes, and even pick up virtual documents and pass them to each other.
    • Once people become more accustomed to VR, organizations will start simulating more authentic and immersive experiences. For example, meetings can be held on top of the Burj Khalifa, or at locations relevant to the meeting topic.
  • Artificial Intelligence: AI in communications apps can automate many administrative tasks, such as organize meetings, reschedule calls, and even suggest relevant documents before a meeting. AI can also prioritize messages based on individual users’ preferences. In the future, AI will track engagement during virtual meetings and provide analytics on how participants respond to presentations.  

Business travel will rebound, but may never be the same

Organizations will always rely on in-person, face-to-face meetings for specific scenarios. Human connections are better for meeting with prospects, clients, and partners, and many leaders still prefer “being there.” Trade shows have digital options, but physical attendance allows for meeting and engaging with brands directly. Company retreats are all about team bonding, setting future goals, and boosting employee morale—all better in person. 

At the same time, many organizations won’t risk business travel for the foreseeable future and will continue allowing employees to work from home. Sixty-two percent of travel managers expect travel will return to pre-pandemic levels by end of the year, 25% feel it will take until the end of 2021, and 10% believe it will take even longer than that, according to an April survey of 125 travel managers by BCD Travel.

The same survey found that 6 in 10 corporate travel managers expect the frequency of travel to go down, while the use of virtual meetings will continue to rise post-COVID-19. In fact, 78% of respondents feel virtual internal meetings will happen more often, 57% believe virtual external meetings will increase, and 49% expect the frequency of virtual conferences to go up.

Similarly, 35% of organizations will continue to allow employees to work from home after the pandemic ends, and another 35% are considering flexible work, according to a survey of 460 organizations by Nemertes Research. 

Unified communications as a substitute for business travel

Many organizations have learned that with the right technology, remote employees can perform as effectively and efficiently as office employees. At the same time, as new technologies such as 5G, AI, and virtual reality continue to emerge and mature, communications technology will continue to evolve and transform workplace collaboration.

While business travel begins to rebound post-pandemic, the experiences companies have had with remote work will significantly impact long-term business travel strategies. Business travel will return but at a slow pace with a lower peak. The new normal of virtual communication and collaboration is here, and this time it’s staying.

Organizations planning for a future with reduced business travel will need the right communications solution to substitute in-person meetings. Ideally, unified communications solutions like the RingCentral app are a top priority. The solution combines team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single app, allowing employees to collaborate with colleagues, clients, and prospects from any location and on any device. With a browser-based video conferencing option, meetings can get started with a single click, giving users a seamless experience from start to finish.

Originally published May 19, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023

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