Every Ash Cloud Has a Green IT Lining

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Now the planes are flying again, Andrew Donoghue says let’s dump business jollies and save real travel for holidays

In the aftermath of the suspension of air travel following 9/11 global temperatures reportedly dropped by 1 degree thanks to the lack of plane activity.

No similar findings seem to have appeared in the wake of ash-pocolypse – yet – but it’s likely that some climate boffins have used the opportunity to generate some scary global warming metrics. Given all the controversy around climate data recently, some hard facts would help the climate change camp enormously.

At the moment though it feels as if the environmental benefits of keeping a large swathe of the worlds’ 12,000 plus civil airliners grounded have been forgotten amid the chaos. It’s probable that even reactionary groups such as Greenpeace don’t want to start preaching with travelers still stranded abroad but surely it’s worth pointing out the green lining in the ash cloud?

The Green Lining In the Ash Cloud

One group of companies that haven’t been backward in seeing the opportunities in the flight ban are telecoms and video conferencing specialists. Before the potentially knee-jerk decision to open up the skies again on Tuesday night, tech companies such as Virgin Media Business were busy touting the potential of video chats and other so-called collaborative technologies. “Companies that already use remote collaboration tools on a daily basis will be well aware of the cost and time savings that can be generated by meeting virtually,” the company said in a statement.

But it seems the idea of companies turning to tech in the absence of air travel isn’t just hype. The European Commission apparently held a video conference meeting of various transport ministers to try and at least give the appearance of competence amid the ash cloud chaos.

Even Google got in on the act by touting the benefits of its hosted apps in helping stranded execs stay productive.

Now, you or I might feel that one of the few benefits of being stranded is that you can be unproductive for a while. But that’s now how risk specialist – and Google customer – Complinet sees it: “All the employees who are currently ‘stranded’ have continued to work as usual using Google Docs and communicating through Google Talk”, the company boasted.  We bet those execs were ecstatic about that.

There have also been numerous examples of how social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter helped the stranded stay connected. Tweeting as calaisrescue, TV presenter Dan Snow reportedly evacuated twenty-five people in three boats, before the authorities brought the rescue effort to a halt for health and safety reasons. It seems that ash is not as dangerous as Snow.

Flying Has More In Common With Teleportation

From smartphones to social networks, it’s obvious there is more than enough tech to keep us all in touch and the wheels of commerce trundling on. What the ash-cloud has shown us however is not to take physical travel for granted. Zipping around the world in a metal tube is an experience more akin to teleportation than the travails our forebears had to suffer to get around.

Green groups and tech companies have been banging on about swapping physical travel for virtual collaboration for years but it has taken a volcano to drive the message home. True, most travelers will probably quickly forget the trauma from Eyjafjallajoekull but some might think harder before booking their next spur of the moment trip.

For businesses, the last week will hopefully reinforce the message that the days of travel as a perk could be numbered. The financial crisis has probably done more to curb the idea of the “jolly” than anything else but if more stable times return hopefully some vivid memories of April 2010 will persist. It would be better for business, better for productivity and better for the planet if work travel was limited to the most necessary trips.

Some business travel is absolutely necessary but how much is predicated on old and tired corporate culture? Paranoia that a competitor will wine and dine a prospect in person and steal a lucrative contract away will still deter some businesses from scaling up video conferencing efforts. But just as the technology will undoubtedly evolve and improve, cultural changes holding back wider use of video and other collaboration tools may also be gradually eroded.

Time To Change Tired Business Cultures

Aside from the cost and environmental benefits, instant messaging, video conferencing and even teleconferencing have the added benefit of being recordable. Face to face meetings obviously have benefits too in terms of basic human interaction but unless you’re prepared to scribble or record notes, they don’t provide the same ability to review details again or share with colleagues.

Rather than looking to reward workers with business travel perks, it might be more sensible to compensate staff by allowing them to work from home more often or provide more days off. Travel should be reserved for holidays when the destination can actually be experienced rather than glimpsed from a business hotel during a pointless meeting.

Scrutiny of corporate carbon emissions is only set to increase. Combined this with continuing economic uncertainty and the pressure on companies to look at alternatives to business travel is clear.

And if all that fails then there is a good chance that another Icelandic volcano will help push the message home. The last three times Eyjafjallajoekull erupted so did it’s bigger sibling Katla. We have all been warned.

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