Collaborating to deal with that pesky travel problem

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Trewin Restorick on the barriers and potential solutions to addressing travel challenges

Delve deeply into most companies' environmental and carbon targets and the chances are that, if the company is growing, costs and emissions from travel will be increasing. Most companies will happily talk about behaviour change initiatives to cut waste or office energy use, but if the conversation moves towards travel heads shrink back into shells.

When you talk to people about the reluctance to address carbon emissions from travel, you get a variety of stock answers. The chief executive is wedded to his beloved car and doesn't want the debate; our high achievers are literally high flyers and we can't curb their travel; company cars and travel benefits are an essential part of our rewards package; clients demand that we meet them face to face, etc, etc.

But times they are a changing. Fuel prices are soaring, profits are being squeezed and hard-pressed chief financial officers are starting to demand instant solutions. Cue a range of draconian top-down initiatives, one of the current favourites being "No Travel Day" or even "No Travel Week".

These are typical of an attempt to fix a major cultural and behavioural challenge with a piecemeal sticky-plaster approach.

Global Action Plan, with support from Telefonica O2, has been bringing together a range of diverse businesses and organisations to openly discuss the transport challenges they face. The ultimate aim is to increase collaboration and to provide freely available guidance as to how a more strategic approach could help organisations deal with this most obstinate of issues.

The debates have been fascinating. An overwhelming consensus quickly emerged that dressing up "No Travel Weeks" as ‘green' initiatives won't fool anybody when they are really about cost saving. This is greenwash, and it can damage internal trust in the organisation's whole CSR agenda.

Besides, employees will often still travel by moving meetings, or demonstrating that their travel is ‘essential'. The sticky-plaster approach fails because it ignores the fundamental cultural change that is required if businesses are serious about changing the way in which their employees travel.

A range of other common themes have emerged. Most organisations admitted that they have no strategic policy in place which aims to cut travel without damaging business efficiency. Responsibility for the issue floats between Human Resources, Fleet Management, CSR teams and ICT departments.

This lack of strategic overview manifests itself in a mish-mash of procedures and policies with no consistency. For example, a desire to encourage people to work from home doesn't chime with line managers' expectations of bums on seats in the office. The plethora of different ways to book travel means that it is hard to track actual costs and carbon emissions. Taxis are a prime example of this; the financial and carbon cost of taxis is often lost as people claim the money back on expenses.

Almost every organisation bemoaned the fact that their video conferencing facilities are under-utilised and acknowledged that many staff are fearful that, when they try to use it for an important meeting, it won't work or they'll get something wrong. Yet simple solutions are available and the openness of the discussions quickly brought these to light. A simple buddying system has helped one company increase uptake; another company is using a system that shows the comparative cost and carbon emissions of virtual meetings versus face-to-face; and another simply ensures video conferences always start 10 minutes before the hour to allow time to sort out any IT glitches.

A strong strategic lead is key when it comes to client relationships. The endemic culture is that clients expect to see you face-to-face to ensure that they are getting value for money. All the companies present agreed that this narrative needs to change. Stronger messaging needs to highlight that travelling less is more efficient, costs less and leads to a more productive use of time and the client's money. Clarity is also required as to who ‘owns' the carbon in the client relationship and whether transparency in this area could be used as a driver for change.

A clear consensus emerged that this is a non-competitive topic around which there should be more collaboration. This collaboration could be on many levels. Businesses could combine their buying power to help stimulate the changes they wish to see with suppliers; jointly they could highlight to Government a wide-range of policy issues which they feel are hindering progress; and they could share examples of best practice to speed the up-take of sustainable solutions.

Addressing how people travel is always a sensitive subject and the barriers to organisations making headway are cultural, policy-driven and organisational. Equally there is next to no incentive from government for them to change. That said, there are examples of businesses employing genuinely innovative solutions. What our recent conversations clearly highlighted is that transport is an area that needs considerably more discussion and collaboration if tangible long-term solutions are going to become common-place. Global Action Plan will continue to openly explore this issue and, encouragingly, many organisations seem keen to join us in this important discussion.

Trewin Restorick is the chief executive of environmental advisory body Global Action Plan.

This article first appeared at his blog Trewin Says

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