A couple of weeks ago I surmised that the travel disruption caused by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might force businesses to rethink how they manage their long-distance relationships. It might, I posited, force businesses to be more open to teleworking, teleconferencing and the use of social media for geographically dispersed teams.
Eyjafjallajökull is showing no signs of stopping. A reduced ash plume combined with favourable winds and a change in the aviation industry’s policy towards acceptable ash levels allowed air travel to restart, but the last couple of days have seen Ireland and Scotland forced to close airports due to renewed ash threat. The volcano became “more explosive” with a higher, denser ash column that was swept towards Ireland and Scotland by a southeasterly wind.
I think it’s reasonable to say that we may see further disruption in the UK and across Europe as this eruption continues, so it seems like a good time to remake the point: Start planning now for your business to be affected by further flight bans, especially as the holiday season creeps towards us, increasing the risk that staff may be able to get out of the country but unable to get home. Start introducing collaborative technology now. Don’t wait for disaster to strike, but get your staff up to speed with new tools whilst you still have the luxury of not being in the middle of a crisis.
Harold Jarche points out that working online is different, and it takes some getting used to:
[I]t’s not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide.
And Ethan Zuckerman makes a great point that we don’t notice how much we rely on our infrastructure until it has gone. I like Ethan’s definition of ‘infrastructure’:
Infrastructure is the stuff we ignore until it breaks. Then it’s the stuff we’re stunned to discover we’re dependent on.
He then goes on to point out how ridiculous our dependence on air travel has become, to the point where we expect to be able to fly in, do a 20 minute conference presentation and fly home again. I’ve even done that in one single day, and it’s not fun. But, Ethan says:
It’s possible that Eyjafjallajökull could change this. If a 24 hour trip to London has a significant risk of becoming a 5 day trip to London, the calculus changes. As much as frequent travellers gripe about delays and cancellations, they’re pretty infrequent, and mass delays like the ones currently being experienced are downright rare. If they become commonplace, I personally would expect to say no to travel lots more often and do a lot more appearances via Skype and videoconferencing.
From meetings to conferences to team-building events, unreliable air travel changes how we think about long-distance travel. It should also change how we think about working over long distances, and, thence, how we work with the people who sit right next to us.
And for anyone who thinks that this is all a big fuss over nothing, here are a couple of thoughts:
Firstly, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in December 1821, she did so in fits and starts, with two weeks of activity followed by nothing until June 1822 when she erupted again. Ash fell intermittently for months and activity continued into 1823. In June of 1823, Katla, her neighbour, erupts for four weeks. We are likely to see lulls in activity from Eyjafjallajökull, but we shouldn’t interpret that to mean that the threat is over.
Secondly, by implementing social media, encouraging collaboration and discouraging unnecessary travel your business will become more efficient, more effective and will waste less money on travel. Even if Eyjafjallajökull stops erupting, you’ll still be better off for having prioritised better collaboration practices.