What I Learned from a Year Without Business Trips

By Erica Dhawan
September 9, 2021

Before the pandemic, the author considered herself something of a road warrior. She was on the road around 80 days a year, while raising two young kids at home. Traveling for work was a non-negotiable, or so she thought. This past year, as the author was grounded and forced to take a break from traveling due to the pandemic, she was inspired to rethink her home and work lives. Three key lessons the author recommends carrying forward are to (1) maximize wellness on the road, (2) reimagine family rituals, and (3) travel less and smarter. As we’re getting ready to travel again, practicing these lessons will help us evaluate and balance quality time with family and the value of being at an event in-person.


It’s quaint that once there was a world in which we could not imagine not traveling regularly for work. Like so many of us that are pushing ourselves to our professional limits while raising a family, traveling for work was a constant dilemma and source of stress. My husband and I shared an intricately color-coded Google calendar that ruled our lives. It included flight times and hotel information and bore witness to the constant creative negotiation and coordination required to have one of us home by the kids’ bedtime.


Before the pandemic, I considered myself something of a road warrior. Between out-of-state leadership conferences and a geographically scattered client list, my consultancy work required travel; at my peak, I was taking 30 work trips annually, which meant around 80 days a year on the road.


Unlike some of my saner friends, I never said no to an out-of-town gig — even though my partner traveled for work more than I did and we have two young kids. The juggle was real. But business travel seemed non-negotiable; saying no felt like it would jeopardize my keynote speaking opportunities and income. I couldn’t imagine my professional career, without all of the travel, without being in person to connect with my audiences.


Then, like so many of us, my travel schedule screeched to a halt. Now that travel is beginning to resume, I’m starting to figure out what my future looks like. Taking a break from travel has inspired a lot of rethinking about both my home and work lives. Here are three lessons I learned, and practices that I’ll keep for the future.


1. Maximize wellness on the road


Many of us found ways to increase our wellness habits during the pandemic, whether it’s been practicing yoga online or making a commitment to cleaner eating. Identify the healthy changes you’ve made during this time and brainstorm ways to make them portable. Can you continue your yoga practice on the road if you throw a beach towel in your suitcase instead of your yoga mat? Can you pack healthy snacks or easy-to-prepare breakfast items to help you maintain progress on your nutrition goals?


When I traveled for work in the past, I would cram my itinerary with back-to-back meetings. By the time I returned home, I often felt too drained to be present with my partner and young kids. During the pandemic, one of my favorite activities for both my mental and physical health has been going on long walks throughout New York City. As I start to travel again, I plan to book hotels near parks or interesting and walkable neighborhoods. Instead of defaulting to proximity to the convention center or airport, I am going to choose where I stay based on what will offer me the most overall wellness opportunities.


2. Reimagine family rituals


If this time has taught us nothing else, it’s that even luddites can log into Zoom. We can continue to use technology to connect with our family once we’re traveling again.


When quarantine began, I no longer felt I needed to compensate for lost time with my family. We have spent more quality time together over this last year than ever before. Today, our family savors meals together. All of us — excluding our boisterous newborn — go around the table to report what we’ve done that day. We also carve out special time for playing music and doing arts-and-crafts projects as a family, and for walks in the park.


While we won’t be able to recreate all of our new rituals when I resume travel, I plan to use technology to stay connected to my family. For example, I’m going to pack a picture book so I can Facetime my husband and read my kids a bedtime story. I’m also planning on creating and sending quick video messages for my kids, so they know how much I miss them and that I’m thinking of them every day.


3. Travel less and smarter


We all found ways to continue hosting trainings and conferences and to deliver keynotes virtually during the pandemic. As we move forward, virtual events and conferences will continue to be an option.


Consider when or why you would decide to “attend” an event virtually instead of traveling to be on-site. That might mean setting a ceiling on the number of work trips you take per year or per month if your industry has a busy season. During the pandemic, my husband and I created a  “rules of the road” checklist to help us evaluate which opportunities are worth traveling for and which aren’t as the world reopens and we are able to travel regularly again. Use our list as it appears here, or take it and modify it to suit your family.


8 Rules of the Road Checklist:


I will only travel if one or more of the following statements are true:

  1. The proposed timeframe is clear of birthdays, holidays, or major school events.
  2. Attending the meeting in-person will make a significant difference in our careers.
  3. The work trip is fewer than three total days.
  4. It’s a day trip, with a meeting midday, and the flight is less than three hours.
  5. The flight is no more than four to six hours long.
  6. I have at least two weeks’ notice to plan for the trip as a family, and adjust schedules accordingly.
  7. My spouse will be home for dinner and bedtime.
  8. We have time to plan to turn the work trip into a vacation and can bring the kids.


These rules help me feel grounded. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss traveling for work. As I launch my book Digital Body Language, I am especially eager to get back on the road to read real-time responses from the audience (a challenge to replicate through screens). But going forward, I won’t be traveling back-to-back weeks like I was pre-Covid or missing my kids’ performances, recitals, and games.


When I do start to travel again for work, I want to enjoy the overall experience and the opportunity to reinvent my family’s rituals. I’m looking forward to an improved balance of travel with virtual events. And most of all, I’m ready to continue to grow my business and to spend quality time with my family — no matter where I am.

 

 

 


Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century teamwork and collaboration. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to “End Digital Burnout.” Follow her on LinkedIn.  


Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

 

 

 

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Finding Balance as a Dual-Career Couple