From a first-hand experience being on holiday overseas with his Seventy-something parents in Asia just when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold to returning home to a mandatory 14-day self-imposed quarantine back home in Australia, Robert Nangle, Director of Travel Design Group, reveals some insights and learnings from the fast-changing world we now live in. Fortunately for his travel management company that specialises in group travel, corporate travel, and school trips and leisure travel, Robert also just happened to be ahead of the curve in setting up a working-from-home environment for his team 18 months ago. Here he offers some invaluable, practical advice for those travel management companies finding the transition challenging. The good news is, there are plenty of great reasons why the remote office environment can work in your favour as we step into a new future in the travel industry.
Q: Robert, tell us about your recent holiday experience in Bali with your parents just when the coronavirus pandemic took hold?
A: The first thing that I noticed was that the glamour and excitement of travel had gone for people and everyone was on edge. Bali, at that stage a week or so ago, had only one case of the virus but I was amazed at how organised the Balinese had been with such things as sound hygiene practices and preparedness for the virus. Most places had hand sanitiser available and your temperature was taken everywhere. The streets and restaurants where very quiet and you could see things dramatically winding down and stopping.
Q: Tell us about the flight back into Australia knowing you were facing a 14-day self-imposed isolation period at home and how is that going?
A: The flight back was full and you could feel the tension on the plane. When the doors to the aircraft opened once we landed, we were greeted by two people in full protective clothing, including medical grade body suit and goggles, who were handing out the Australian notice on quarantine and coronavirus.
Q: What are your observations about being in quarantine? What’s been challenging and have you found any positives in the experience?
A: I think we’re lucky in that quarantine nowadays is a lot easier than if it was in years gone by because modern technology means most things are accessible. For example, Netflix, Stan and YouTube make it a lot easier to entertain yourself and overcome the boredom. That also applies to communications technology in that we can stay connected with loved ones as well as being able to work from home. Fortunately, we have such things as video conferencing and can be productive (and connected) by attending virtual meetings on applications like Microsoft Teams, which my team at Travel Design Group is set up on. Food delivery services like Uber Eats now has a section for people like me in quarantine to leave the food at the front of the door to reduce the risk of their delivery staff being exposed to the virus, so that’s certainly another positive.
Out of our comfort zone
Q: Has the quarantine experience given you time to really think about what’s going on and what the new restrictions being updated almost daily means for us all?
A: From all accounts this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Your family and your safety is paramount. Difficult times and decisions will need to be made by all of us and even the rules and regulations need to be followed and enforced at all times, despite whether you think they are restrictive or unnecessary. This is so important. Simply, we need to work as a team and community to stop this and get life and business back to normal as soon as possible.
Q: We are witnessing massive transformation for so many travel companies unfamiliar with switching to “work from home” mode or setting up a remote office. You’re ahead of the curve in a business sense in that you implemented a virtual office and work-from-home environment for your employees 18 months ago. What made you decide to take that approach with your business?
A: One of the main reasons in moving to a virtual office structure was I wanted to be unrestricted in accessing the best staff available. With a bricks and mortar office, you are limited by your business address. I wanted to have an agile business model in which I could find the best staff based on skills and ability and not be restricted by location. It meant I could set them up anywhere in Australia. It also meant I could extend my open hours due to employees being set up in Western Australia and find staff based on the passion to (be part of the industry).
Q: How have you found that process 18 months later and what other benefits have there been?
A: It dramatically reduced the company’s bottom line and overheads and made the business more dynamic and enabled me to invest in other areas like technology. I really wanted to change the work-life balance for staff and make work more accessible to people in regional areas while also giving staff the ability to spend more time with family. It assisted with offering the team flexible working hours and a comfortable work environment which resulted in productivity and morale increasing once we put that in place.
Transition to a remote office
Q: Some companies have found this transition extremely challenging. What are your learnings from having done this for over a year and a half?
A: You need to make sure that you have a working from home policy in place and ensure people are aware of it. They also need to make sure they have access to good, strong and reliable internet.
For work-life balance, before I employ anyone or set up a home office for them, I ask that they need to be able to have it in an area where they can close the door and switch off from “being at home” as such. Working from home is meant to improve work-life balance but I found for some you need to be really diligent in ensuring work doesn’t take over because it’s so close by and within the home.
Also, make sure that all in your company are using the same systems and you have centralised storage of data like Google or Office 365.
Q: Tell us more about the technical side of it and what’s really important to know?
A: Client data and security is important and the ability to stop or remove access to people who may not be in the same state or country is paramount and needs to be set up before anyone works from home. Trust was my biggest thing and letting go of old ways and embracing the new model and way of thinking. It is hands down the best decision for my business and I could not think of going back to the old way.
Q: How do you control sensitive work information and protect data in such a remote work environment?
A: Working in a solid cloud-based environment is imperative. Saving data on personal computers and hard drives shouldn’t be allowed as then if the computer fails or there is a termination of employment, then you’re not controlling intellectual property and data isn’t properly protected. If it’s all set up in a cloud environment, then the return of any physical computers isn’t necessary or mandatory to recover data: everything from the computer is kept in the cloud and backed up and recoverable. Get a good password application and we use LastPass so travel managers are still able to log into all sites and there is no need to view or compromise passwords as they are not visible and updated automatically online.
Healthy habits at home
Q: While a lot of people love the sound of remote office working, not everyone can slip straight into that mode of working. What are two or three things you could share that will make the transition easier for them?
A: Create a space for your work and make it functional, bright and interesting. For example, have a nice pot plant at your desk or be close to the natural light of a window if possible. Still go through the routine as if you are driving to work: get up with ample time and have a shower, make sure you get out of your pyjamas (lol) and prepare yourself for a day of work. Remember to show gratitude for your ability to work from home as the gift that it is and appreciate not having to spend time commuting and have more time to spend with family and friends. Be sure to set your day up and remove distractions such as your TV, social media or playing a nearby musical instrument. Importantly, factor in breaks which may even include a good stretch or short meditation. On the weekend, make sure you have prepared a good grocery shop so you can prepare healthy meals and snacks during your work day. Most importantly, make sure you have a work-life balance strategy in place and remember to leave the house at certain times because you still need to go out and see people and enjoy the sun.
Q: Staff culture and communication becomes a big topic with this kind of set up – how does Travel Design Group address this?
Weekly virtual meetings are a must and there are so many applications that can help with this.
Where possible, try to arrange monthly face to face catch-ups as core meetings. You will need to keep your finger on the pulse or gauge the barometer of individuals, teams or divisions a lot more since you will not have ‘a visual’ to identify that. You need to do the checks to make sure you can see they are okay and happy. If possible, do things out of the norm and plan in advance for a Christmas or team dinner so it gives your staff something to look forward to for that personal connection and a chance to let your hair down together in person. Be prepared that working from home requires flexibility and if you trust and support your team, you will see productivity and good morale, as well as having great advocates for your business and long-term employees. If you have employed the right people from the start and give them the space and trust, then you will see amazing results.
Q: What positives do you believe will come from this horrible experience we’re all going through in the travel industry when life returns to relatively normal?
A: Business has changed as we know it and I think that business will see how easy it is to have staff work from home and the positive impact that this can have on the business. So, we will all learn a lot. In these trying times we will only get through it with the help of our staff and it will reveal the strength and resilience in both our businesses and employees. With everything there is a silver lining and this will be a forced audit on vulnerabilities in our businesses and hopefully give us the time to plug the holes to be able to set sail again once the storm passes. We really are all in this together.