Are you all traveling yet?

September 29, 2022 Melissa DeShields

As COVID becomes a more seasonal and manageable phenomenon, many businesses and organizations are beginning to return to what some call a “new normal”. For some that might include a return to the office space and a resume of business travel as usual. On many of our calls these days, we’re hearing partners and prospective clients asking some version of the question “are you all traveling yet?” with more frequency. It’s understandable. As so many people are quick to point out during the ensuing discussion, there’s nothing like getting in a room together to ‘roll up our sleeves’ and really dig into work communally.

And we get it. As human beings, we are all conditioned from birth to engage with one another in person, to pick up on tones, expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal communication. Frontline is a highly relational firm. We are intentional and deliberate about how we come into community with each other and our clients. So much so, that when we launch each project we make sure to build in a phase that centers the process of entering into right relationship with our clients. So, what’s up with the travel? If everyone else is booking flights, why is Frontline so hesitant?

At Frontline we tend to do things differently and we always have. In fact, it’s part of our identity. As a firm with consultants who are based all over the country, and sometimes the world, we have long been adept at connecting with one another from a distance. After all, on any given project, the team that’s best suited to partner with a client may include members from Minneapolis, LA, and New York. Virtual meetings and retreats have been central to our practice for years. It also probably goes without saying that nobody on our team ever really loved travel. Pre-pandemic our team was traveling approximately 65% of the time– and what  lines and security checks to deal with, added wear and tear on your body and physical distance from loved ones; it seems unfathomable to return to that somewhat dated norm . Other important factors as to why we’re staying put include the health and wellbeing of our staff, our ability to actually improve the quality of work virtually, environmental impact, and cost.

The health, wellbeing, healing and growth of our people is at the core of our values as a firm. We are very intentional about caring for staff (you can read more about that in this post from last year). Travel, even without catching a cold or flu, though, takes a physical and mental toll on staff. It pulls people away from their partners, children, and pets. In short, all the small things we do to care for our whole selves in order to show up to our daily tasks – whether a morning walk or yoga session, a writing routine or dropping off a child at school- are shifted, lost, or postponed when we’re catching 6 AM flights. It means when we arrive to facilitate a retreat, we can be anxious, tired, and distracted. Over time that leads to burnout and attrition. It’s our belief that keeping staff safe and in good spirits is not only the right thing to do, but essential for how we do business and who we are.

And how do we do business? Our practice is built on creating spaces in which we can facilitate sometimes challenging conversations, elevate voices that are often overlooked or ignored, and speak difficult truths. Successful engagements rely on our teams being able to establish trust with stakeholders and connections with clients. When we pulled back from travel, we had to figure out how we could do all of this in a virtual setting. While we had been conducting virtual meetings for some time, we now worked collectively to figure out how to facilitate engaging online retreats and work sessions. We found new ways to create virtual containers for connecting with folx; focusing more time on genuine check-ins that recognize people’s humanity and what was actually going on in their real lives.

Some of the shift was in tactics, tools and even approach. We were able to debut with clients some of the collaborative tools we’d been using internally for years. We were actually able to build community by working through the learning curve on these tools. Instead of subscribing to white dominant norms and constructs of perfectionism and mastery in all things, we were able to model grace as we walked people through the use of new platforms. In recognizing our collective fallibility as the world shifted around us, we created spaces in which we actually strengthened connections in the virtual setting. Given that online engagements mean that our squad has more time to prepare and develop materials and analysis, more time to meet with one another and consider the opportunities posed by the situation, we became as good and effective in the virtual setting as we were with in-person travel.

In addition to these points, other considerations have been the significant environmental impact and added costs of travel. As a firm, our carbon footprint is pretty low. Even a single instance of a team traveling out to a client site visit would account for the vast majority of our environmental impact. As for cost, travel remains an extremely expensive addition to the budget of any engagement. The foundations and nonprofits who comprise the majority of our clients regard stewardship of their financial resources as a priority. Our stance remains that we would rather spend more time doing research and analysis, building rapport, trust, and genuine relationships with clients and their constituents than wearing out our staff with cross-country flights.

So in response to the question, our answer remains “No, not really.” When we can better maintain staff health and wellbeing, ensure teams are rested, content, and ready, continue to offer excellent and effective engagements, reduce our carbon footprint, and conserve resources, the bar for client-related travel remains pretty high. There may be exceptions, but we are confident that the quality of our work, the impact of our projects, and the depth of our relationships will be served, rather than harmed by our current policy.