Enterprise Communications

Sept. 11, 2001: When Offices and Business Travel Became Obsolete

by Brendan Read 11 Sep 2013
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It usually takes a major life-changing event, like a disaster, for one to realize they no longer need what they thought necessary. The methods and processes once regarded as essential are instead dispensable.

Such is the case with formal offices and business travel. Despite the attempts of senior management at firms like Yahoo! to keep workers on-site rather than allowing them to work from home, the hard reality is these traditional work environments and methods are becoming obsolete and impractical.

Commuting and intercity (especially air travel) is worse, with increased fares and prices, added fees, heightened delays and trip times, and tightened seat spaces. In contrast, the alternatives of working from home and virtual meetings are now more practical, productive, manageable, convenient, and cost-effective.

Frost & Sullivan recently published a paper I wrote, "Confronting the Unpredictable in the World of Customer Contact: Strategies for Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery," which highlights employees working from home as a key strategy to enable organizations and their staff to survive and quickly recover from disasters.

It was Sept. 11, 2001 that organizations and workers (like myself: I was working for a company in midtown Manhattan) began to realize they could live without commuting and travel. Along with my wife and sister-in-law, I joined the throng who walked the many blocks to the ferries and bridges that led out of New York City. My wife and I saw the north World Trade Center tower billowing smoke from the windows of our bus that only minutes before had passed the base of the towers.

Then, not long after I got out at my stop, I saw the second plane hit the south tower in an ugly ball of flame and debris. I carried my company-issued laptop and an emergency kit backpack (the New York offices, including my own, provided updates to management based in San Francisco) that gouged a still-visible scar in my left shoulder, along with a now-useless cellphone. Later that evening, at a friend’s home in New Jersey, I logged into the Internet to make — and answer — “Are you OK” emails.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law was stricken with a heart attack while in the lineup to board a ferry across the Hudson River. The crowd kindly let us cut in and board, while one of the many waiting ambulances — they weren’t needed because you either walked out of the towers or you perished — took her, accompanied by my wife, to a nearby hospital.

Two days later, my wife’s son (a paramedic) picked us up, and we returned to our then-home on Staten Island. He was called to what became known as “Ground Zero.” Before my wife was able to reach him, we didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

Fortunately I had a home office already set up. And only a handful of times did I go into the office again.

People found they liked and could work effectively from home, even more so than in offices where they endured long, stressful, and expensive commutes. And people could stay in touch with colleagues, supervisors, and clients just like they were there.

Following Sept. 11, 2001, most workers did return to their offices, and many others began flying again, but there were marginally fewer who did so than before. And this seems to be the pattern after each “event,” including the SARS outbreak, Hurricane Katrina, the Iceland volcanic eruption, and last year, Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy (which I also witnessed and had to evacuate—more in a future blog).

Remote working is a good thing, because commuting and travel increases employee and employer exposure to disasters and their consequences. Not only that, these practices raise the odds and scale of devastation by global warming through vehicle emissions, in addition to the bulldozing air-and-water supply-replenishing greenspace and wetlands into roadways, rail lines, airports, and the unfortunately named “office parks.”

On top of that, vehicle pollutants cause dangerous ailments like asthma and heart disease that decreases employee productivity and raises healthcare costs, in addition to inflicting pain and suffering on individuals and family members. Work travel also exposes staff to accidents and crime. Offices are “germ factories,” in which colds, the flu, and worse (like SARS) can empty cubicles faster than reports of pizza in the lunchroom.

But if the world, the United States especially, lost its innocence on Sept. 11, it also learned to work together globally, and virtually, from offices, homes, vehicles, and cafes — anywhere where there is a signal and work to be done.

And increasingly, world trade is now taking place by individuals and teams connected by, and their performance and productivity managed through, a growing array of cloud, unified communications, conferencing, collaboration, monitoring, and workforce management technologies. Moreover, distributed work, like distributing computing through the Internet and the cloud, lessens the ability of any one “event,” or even a minor blockage, from disrupting businesses and lives, while increasing productivity by being able to source the best people, regardless of their location.

There will always be a need for some in-person interaction, particularly at the executive level. This fact is exhibited by the new tower on the site of “the twin towers” in Lower Manhattan (the PATH trains that terminate in its bowels are still marked “WTC” on their rollsigns).

But such office work and business trips will become the exception, rather than, as in the past, the rule.  And when future disasters loom or occur, these individuals will work and interact virtually, like their counterparts had to do 12 years ago. With fewer of their number returning to their offices, or to the roads or airports, in the aftermath.

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