Four facets of sustainability ... in travel

I asked myself for a long time about how much flying I was doing – and the impact of that air travel on the environment – even before the pandemic. But the global shift in business travel, or lack thereof, put my own choices into sharper focus. 

In Roche culture, face-time was, and still is, important. If you led a global organization, there was almost an expectation that you would visit certain locations at least once a year. 

I'm very people-focused in my leadership, and I really believed that was true. For many years I flew a lot. At some points I was on a plane three out of four weeks a month. What kept me doing that was the sense that people really appreciated me showing up and spending time with them. 

After three years of doing that in Asia-Pacific, I was exhausted. And when I took a role in Diagnostics, in Belmont, California, I was based in one location. I didn't really fly anywhere. One personal plus point of that job? I needed to recover from three years of flying around the world. I needed to spend some time with my family. My kids were growing up and I had a sense I was missing out on their childhood. Another big plus? I felt better about not contributing to a massive CO2 footprint.

When I came to my current job, in Basel, the first question I had for myself was: Do I have to go back to the same level of traveling that I was doing before?

My predecessor in this role traveled enormously. He was flying probably four weeks a month around the world. I thought: “I literally cannot do that, so I have to find another path.” 

As a group, we started to do a lot more things virtually; more town halls, more video-related updates, my video calls, and that trend was gaining a lot of momentum. In general, I was traveling less. 

When the COVID-19 situation came, travel was off the table. I thought “Well, there's no reason I can't go and ‘visit’ different teams in different countries virtually and just show up, do an informal Hangout meeting for an hour and have a conversation with teams.”

We started to do that more. No real agenda. No big formal presentation. Maybe a few opening words and then a discussion on different topics. It's been very well received. I think I can achieve the same level of connectivity with people doing that than I probably would have done by flying around. Because my ability to connect with colleagues across the globe is higher and the effort behind is lower, I can be in five countries within the same week, potentially. 

In the past, you could bank on the fact that on Mondays and Fridays, most global leaders were not available because they were on an airplane. So that's the other benefit: now I know if I need to talk to my boss, he's at home on that day. I can get time at the drop of a hat if really needed. In the past, it would take a couple of weeks to get even half an hour in his calendar.

This new way of working potentially means we can feel more connected to people and we have a lower impact on our health and the environment. There are many other plus sides to less travel, but I don't think working remotely all the time is the answer either. 

Coming to the office is still something I think we need to do. We’ll be flying around the world less, but if we don't create some connectivity between ourselves and the people we work with locally, there’s a danger that the culture of the company starts to erode over time. Going forward, I’ll spend three or four days a week in the office, and maybe one day at home to get more focused time to catch up on a few things. I think the key – like so much in life – is moderation in all things. 

Read Steve's other blogs on Four Facets of Sustainability, including in of theinand of

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