By Paul Abbott, CEO, American Express Global Business Travel

In Spring 2020, the skies emptied. Travel all but stopped as the world locked down. Some predicted an end to business travel. Two years on, we now know we were seeing the opposite. The pandemic was the start of a new era — one in which travel is more important to businesses than ever before. In an era of flexible work, travel is how companies build a culture. And culture is how they succeed.

A world with less commuting

For two years we have witnessed the effects of restricted movement on the workplace. A perfect storm of enforced homeworking, distributed teams and high attrition rates have forced businesses to review real estate policies while scrambling to build new, engaging work environments to entice people back to the office.

There is no easy fix, or post-pandemic reprieve – the world of work has changed. Research firm Gartner predicts companies could lose four in 10 colleagues if they mandate a return to full-time, office-based work. Figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics show online job adverts including the term “homeworking” trebled between 2020 and 2021.

These trends flow from a powershift toward workers. In his annual letter, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink wrote that no relationship has been changed more by the pandemic than the one between employees and employers. People are quitting at historically high rates and the tightening labor market is empowering workers to demand higher wages and more flexibility.

This new-found flexibility can be good for the economy and society. Liberation from commutes and offices mean the corporate workers of tomorrow no longer need to cluster in urban centers. It will become easier to achieve a better work-life balance, which means more motivated and productive colleagues.

The office used to drive culture – now it will be travel

But these benefits have a cost. Historically companies have invested huge sums in creating collaborative, engaging and stimulating work environments. They did so because they knew great companies have great cultures. Culture breeds creativity and innovation. It helps build fulfilling relationships – a vital part of feeling driven and engaged at work.

Today’s companies can’t afford to give up on culture. Yet the place where it has historically been formed – the office – is no longer the main setting for work. Gone are the days when you could fly to a destination, go to an office and expect everyone to be there. Today, live contact with colleagues requires careful planning and coordination – every trip will be an event.

Business travel is therefore taking on a new role as the catalyst of culture. Weekly, monthly or quarterly get togethers will be the means by which employees bond, collaborate and innovate. The line between business travel and meetings will disappear as the breeding ground for culture shifts away from the office towards regular coordinated travel.

Less commuting means more business travel

It is why the decline of commuting will fuel growth in business travel. I’m not alone in this view. Zoom recently invested in American Express Global Business Travel and hailed a future of “innovative and engaging virtual, face-to-face, and hybrid meeting and event experiences.” Rather than stifle business travel, videoconferencing is already a stimulant for meeting in person. Industry insiders are also optimistic. Seven out of ten corporate travel decision makers believe more remote work will lead to a more dispersed workforce and more business travel.

We are already seeing this across our client base. Salesforce is a prime example. Concerned about the impact of virtual work on company culture, the software company moved quickly to organize regular events in a variety of locations to bring colleagues together. Leadership teams have also committed to monthly in-person meetings. We have seen similar in other firms.

For travel managers, this means an expanded remit and higher purpose. They will be the new custodians of corporate culture, helping colleagues gather and succeed. Their relationships with HR, recruitment and facilities management will tighten. Internal travel, once the first line item to face CFO scrutiny, is becoming a strategic investment in people, while external travel will remain a true differentiator for successful organizations.

There is also a sustainability benefit to this shift. As companies embrace flexible working, emissions from commuting will reduce significantly. Although there will be an increased need for regular coordinated business travel, companies should measure their entire travel carbon footprint, including commuting.

A trusted guide in an uncertain world

While very few people doubt the value of face-to-face meetings, we can’t lose sight of ongoing safety concerns. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, it is essential we continue to do all we can to restore traveler confidence. Where there are new standards of safety, we must rise to them. Where travel is more complex, we must be a trusted guide. Every trip must be treated like an event to ensure the support given to travellers is truly an end-to-end experience. We cannot simply assert that travel is safe, or enjoyable. The travel industry must set the standard through its actions and service.

Today’s successful businesses must be more flexible, inclusive and responsible than ever before. The pressure to adapt is intense. But thinking more, and thinking differently, about the movement of people will help organizations rise to the challenge. Technology enables workforce flexibility, but it’s business travel and meeting in person that makes it work and thrive. Managed well, it can make companies more sustainable (including helping with sustainable business travel), inclusive and turn dispersed groups of people into unified teams. In essence, business travel can create a culture. Companies who realize this will take flight. Those who don’t, will be left behind.