Last week, I was lucky enough to spend time at the Regions Tradition golf tournament in Alabama with our good friends from Regions Bank. The event went off without a hitch and was a welcome re-entry into travel in a safe, vaccinated, face-to-face environment. The event was great—and thought-provoking for me, as it was one of my first business trips since the pandemic began.

With more people getting vaccinated around the US, many banks are now contemplating what a post-pandemic return to work looks like here. It’s a privilege to be in a position to think about reopening. But while there is optimism, there is also anxiety.

To be completely honest, COVID has had an outsized impact on the sustainability of the consulting lifestyle for me. My constant travel pre-COVID was becoming unsustainable. Spending time with my family is something I cherish. It’s been my silver lining throughout the pandemic. During my 14 months at home, I’ve had time to reflect on whether it’s truly necessary to get back on the road, or if this new way of working was actually better. And, while I was looking forward to reuniting with friends, colleagues and clients, getting on the plane again last Monday also created a sense of dread of going back to the office and to the relentless travel.

The punchline is that once I got to Birmingham, I was converted. Face-to-face interaction is an imperative. It makes us more productive, compassionate and effective in our dealings with each other. Offscreen moments are magic. They drive our business, our connection and our ability to operate most effectively.

But while travel and in-person interaction will always be part of my job here at Accenture, I also believe we’ll be able to manage our travel more sustainably to allow for a more full, complete and balanced life.

My trip to Birmingham also reminded me that my travel skills and instincts have gotten a bit rusty. Here are some tips on the art and science of business travel that might help you out as we build a new normal.

Preparation and logistics

We are all out of practice, not just when it comes to traveling, but also interacting with one another in-person. I was shocked by how much thinking it required simply to pack a bag for a short trip down the road. After much tribulation, I confirmed I had everything. Of course, once I got to the hotel I realized I hadn’t brought my laptop charger.

Spend the time to plan, like a rookie traveler. Also, spend time to prepare emotionally for your trip or your return to the office. While most of what you’ll do will feel unbelievably normal, it will still be a major shift in the way you work and operate. Treat it as such.

I found logistics, oddly, to be the most challenging part of my trip. I was so out of practice in scheduling face-to-face meetings that it was almost overwhelming to think about where to meet and how much time it would take to get there. Most importantly, that in-person meetings tend to run over, unlike a video call where you just hop to the next web link.

The impact on focus

Once at the hotel, I got up each morning before going to the event or client breakfasts and found myself banging away at work with zero distractions. Zero distractions, that’s right. I just worked. I was focused and unbelievably productive. On the flight home I found myself deep in thought, going over the week and again feeling focused. The realization that in this pandemic we have lost the time to think was a small epiphany. Doing something so normal felt so good.

The human element

Regarding the human connection, once we got beyond the amazement of people being outside of their boxes on the screen and in the real world, it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. Connecting with people I haven’t seen in over a year and meeting “virtual” new friends for the first time was incredible. And while I know we don’t consider virtual meetings a true substitute for in-person interaction, it was clear to me that digital meetings lose the intimacy of a “real” conversation, and we absolutely need it. It was the off-screen moments that mattered most.

I recall sitting at dinner and looking at a colleague next to me, who was talking to the person across from me. Beyond marveling at the fact that her face had a profile view, it struck me that what she was saying was something she never would have thought to say in a video meeting. That led to a more collaborative discussion between us, and ultimately a big idea.

These are the moments we have been missing. They matter—they make us more productive employees and better humans.

But they can only become more common if enough of us do our part and get vaccinated.

The return home

I came home with a great level of energy and enthusiasm about work, my family and life in general. Getting back into the real world helped me realize that a break from the road was good, but remote working will never fully replace face-to-face interactions, nor should it. I also felt extremely fortunate to have access to vaccines when and where I did. Many parts of the world are behind America when it comes to vaccine supply. It’s my hope that everyone on the planet who wants a vaccine can access one.

It wasn’t all great, mind you. The weather was terrible, resulting in a three-hour delay for one of my colleagues—a rude reminder of how life on the road can treat you. I got back home at nearly 7pm on the Friday evening. I missed spending the evenings with my family all week. I worked harder last week than I have in months and I was tired. But I had such positive energy when I got home, and this drove me to focus on my family the moment I walked in the door.

And that felt like the best of all worlds.

As we return to the office, I am convinced the energy and sheer human connectivity will make us more productive, but with a level of balance we lacked before the pandemic.

All in all, it was just a very normal week. We need those now more than ever.

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