Have Air Miles become obsolete as a status symbol?

For close to two months now, many of us have been working almost entirely from home. And it’s going far better than some people anticipated. What has now become normal will change the working world profoundly, believes Gudela Grote.

Over the last weeks, many of us have discovered that we get our work done surprisingly well without business trips or commuting. We’ve seen too that when we stop travelling, entire business sectors run into serious difficulties. This shows us strikingly why efforts to tackle climate change are progressing so slowly. For if we want to slow down or even stop global warming, a drastic economic restructuring is unavoidable. Unfortunately, the chances of politicians being prudent enough in the corona crisis to channel economic assistance so as to encourage such restructuring are slim. Everything seems to be geared towards getting companies back to where they were before the crisis, as swiftly as possible.

Scaffolding a new normality

So if we can’t expect any top-down fundamental rethinking, it’s all the more important that this happens bottom-up. And that involves all of us. So which of the experiences we’ve had as employees or employers are worth taking along into the much-vaunted new normality to shape our everyday work life?

Firstly, as most of us will agree, working from home works fine - even quite well! And that’s in spite of the challenges wrought by the abrupt change and pressing need for childcare. What was once a lesser luxury in Switzerland has now become widespread working practice. Although we’re all looking forward to getting together with colleagues around a real lunch table, team solidarity can also be fostered by virtual coffee breaks on Zoom and a little chat on Slack. The manufacturers of these technologies are delighted, even if clearly there are security loopholes to be fixed.

Yes, they’re really working

Apart from weaker team spirit, the strongest argument against working from home has been the loss of control feared by many bosses. "But are they really working at home, and not just spending more time surfing the internet?" is an objection I’ve heard even from younger managers. As the scientific community has long known, the opposite is usually the case: work performance and company loyalty increase because employees appreciate being able to work from home and reward employers with their commitment. Many in management positions have now experienced this for themselves, and hopefully will be more trustful of their staff in future.

But there is one downside to working from home: in the course of our current investigation of new work forms at ETH, many people have mentioned feeling even more acutely that they must be constantly available. This is no new topic, but it’s one I now consider especially critical, as with many of us working from home, the boundaries between work and private life for each individual and even the entire team are becoming blurred. Clear rules for being allowed to be offline are imperative here.

Halving the number of business trips

And what about business trips’ Well, now we know we can do without them! Videoconferences are functioning better and better; personal closeness and informal communication can be achieved in a virtual environment. But no doubt some people will have found that misunderstandings and conflict are harder to recognise and resolve. And those chance encounters at large business events, which may later prove to be groundbreaking, are hard or almost impossible to imagine in a virtual scenario.

So right now my conclusion is this: although we can’t give up travel altogether, we can probably make do with a lot less. How about establishing a new climate target based on halving the number of business trips’ Those who have little to gain from hanging around in airports and planes will be happy. Others will lose a coveted status symbol - but then George Clooney’s quest for ten million frequent flyer miles in Up in the air is rather sad. In future, a far more critical assessment must be made as to whether a business trip is really necessary. And this should be based on facts rather than motivated by self-interest. But it certainly won’t be easy.

This blog also appears in blogs of Tages-Anzeiger.

Prof. Gudela Grote