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How to travel and still be present (in your professional role and responsibilities)

Jetsetting tends to simply be part of the job when you're a full time consultant. But how do you manage the rest of your life?

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

It becomes “normal” to fly across the country or even from country to country in a 48-hour span when you’re an in-demand consultant. Hotel rooms, ride-sharing and dinners for one all come with the package. But, renowned technology consultant Kate O’Neill wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s the Founder and CEO of KO Insights, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. Her business has consisted of constant travel for many years and because of that she’s developed astute best practices and insights I asked her to share with the rest of us.

What does “being present professionally” mean and what’s an example of it in action?

KO: My day-to-day work delivering keynote talks about the future of tech-led human experiences and the overall impact of emerging technology on humanity is incredibly satisfying to me, but one of the features of the work that some people might find draining is that it requires near-constant travel. I actually love that aspect of it, and it’s part of what drew me to making it my full-time work. 

Kate O’Neil speaks to an engaged crowd in one of her many keynotes.

With that, I constantly meet new people who are part of putting on the events that have hired me to speak. When I meet and interact with those people, I want them to feel I’m attentive and listening, that I’m working to build rapport with them and their audiences, that I respect their efforts and am doing my best to bring value to their event.

Why is it important?

KO: It’s important on a few levels: from a business sustainability standpoint, I value my reputation as someone who’s professional, considerate, and easy to work with — partly because it means that my clients are more likely to recommend me to colleagues and/or bring me back for future events. On top of that, though, from an interpersonal standpoint, everything is more pleasurable when you can actually be present and enjoy interacting with people. You can also pick up on some subtle nuances of what’s needed of you professionally when you’re really paying attention, and that can help make the difference between doing a good job and a great job, especially as a speaker.

It’s easy to paint a picture of a weary traveler bogged down by the exhaustion of travel and the responsibilities of work. What is the most realistic “picture” for you? 

KO: Travel can be wearying, for sure, but I try to adopt the mindset that wherever I am right now is just where I am. So my first priority is to try to stay relaxed and happy. I try to be aware of my surroundings, to notice things. I try to interact kindly with strangers and be patient when the inevitable hiccups happen, such as flight delays, room check-in confusion at hotels, and so on. I make a conscious effort to reduce my own stress level. Seriously: whenever I feel my brow start to furrow, I consciously relax it. It’s kind of an amazing trick that shows how interconnected the body is, because as soon as I relax my brow, I can feel my whole body start to relax — and I may not have even realized I was tense. 

In terms of keeping up with my work responsibilities, I rely on my cloud-based systems and I try to keep them well-enough organized that I can find most anything I need in seconds. I absolutely LIVE in Evernote; I’ve been a power user for over a decade. Lots of tags, carefully arranged notebooks, constant updating of my top shortcuts so that what I need is easily accessible. I’ve also been a long-standing power user of the to-do list app Remember The Milk. Add in Dropbox, Google Drive, Nimble CRM, the speaking event management platform eSpeakers, and a handful of other tools and I have a robust productivity suite quite literally in my hands and at my fingertips wherever I am in the world. 

I recognize, too, as I describe all of that that much of what makes my work possible and keeps it enjoyable didn’t exist even a decade or so ago — certainly not three decades ago when my dad, for example, was living the road warrior lifestyle. He spent a whole lot of time in his car and on short-hop flights, and didn’t have the advantage of cell phones, email, or files in the cloud to streamline it all. My hat’s off to him and everyone else who worked this way before the era of smartphones and cloud-based storage. 

How can professionals show their corporate value while also being a frequent work traveler? Are there communication best practices and/or goal communications someone can implement?

KO:Check in with people. Don’t make it hard to reach you. On the other hand, remember that it’s ok to take some time for yourself to unwind. It’s important for your health. 

Don’t assume that you have it so much better or so much worse than colleagues and clients who are in the office. Gloating and complaining are both equally annoying. Your colleagues may envy you or be relieved they’re not in your shoes, but either way you both have a job to do. 

I like to schedule video call check-ins with colleagues and clients — and even friends — whether I’m on the road or in my home office. Video calls are such a boon to people working remotely, and there are so many options for that these days with all different kinds of features and benefits. It’s so much easier to feel connected when you can see someone’s face even for a few minutes. It’s not a perfect replacement for face-to-face meetings, and sometimes a phone call is simpler; but video calls occupy such a significant middle ground between the phone and face-to-face that it surprises me that more companies haven’t adopted video calls and video conference calls for routine meetings instead of phone calls and conference calls. No matter how many times I use video calls, they still feel like magic to me. 

Are you able to be productive while traveling? If yes, what are tips for both ensuring good self care and still maximizing professional time?

KO: For a long time I struggled with that. I thought of my office setup as being the ideal (I love my 27” monitor) and that every other place I tried to work fell short. But part of really becoming an effective frequent business traveler is knowing what you can get done well in each context and optimizing your work for each context. Figure out where and when you are at your best and try not to waste that opportunity. When I can, I organize my tasks in advance for what works best where. I have a “@plane” tag in Remember The Milk and Evernote, for example, that helps me find the stuff I can easily get done in the air. And for me, the time during flights is usually fantastic for focused writing. 

For example I’m writing these answers on my iPhone on a plane within a file I saved for offline editing in Google Docs. It may not be what I would consider the ideal setup for writing but I do have the luxury of focus and it’s getting done. 

Is it easy to reach burnout with too much travel? Do you have recommendations for how businesses should manage their employees who travel on their behalf? (or multiple options if there’s not a one-size-fits-most approach)

KO: I don’t know what works best for everyone. Some people find themselves in jobs that require travel and they really don’t enjoy it. Others choose their work specifically for it. Managing people as individuals and letting them have some autonomy in their travel, when possible, seems like one clear way to reduce burnout. 

Do you have any strict traveling rules you implement while traveling (e.g. stay on your own time zone, don’t answer emails after a certain time, etc…)?

KO: I would say my strictest travel rule is not to have strict travel rules. 

Ok, there are a few that I tend to follow: I don’t use WiFi when I fly; I use that time for writing and other work when possible, or if I’m absolutely exhausted on a big international trip, for example, I will relax and watch movies. But for someone who’s been Extremely Online for decades I find something special about still having a place where I don’t connect to Twitter and all the rest of it. 

I’m vegan, so I suppose you could call it a strict rule that I only eat vegan food when I travel, but that’s true all the time. It requires a little more planning to be intentional about what you eat when you travel but it’s worth it to feel like you’re making decisions you can feel good about. 

I’ve been big on wiping down my seat area on the plane long before COVID-19 came up, so one rule is that I always bring antibacterial wipes. (Unscented, by the way; fragrances can be irritating or trigger allergies for fellow passengers.) The headrest, the tray table, the armrests, even the seatbelt: all germ havens, so they all get a good scrub-down.

KO: Do you build in time for personal adventures when traveling to new or favorite places?

As often as possible! I usually allow myself a day to explore or several extra days if it’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit. Last year, for example, that meant several extra days in Sydney, Hong Kong, Montréal, and Mumbai, among other places. 

I’m not big on having the typical tourist experiences, so I almost always skip those. But I try to seek out vegan restaurants, independent coffee shops, hip neighborhoods, and green spaces to walk in. In Sydney, for example, I loved exploring the Newtown neighborhood. If I have the time, I will walk for hours just soaking up the local culture, often dictating notes into my phone as thoughts occur to me. And I’m not just talking about exotic international destinations: on an extra half-day in Cleveland, I took a Lyft from my hotel to a vegan breakfast place a few miles away and began walking a meandering, curiosity-driven route all the way back, clocking in at some 15K steps – and along the way saw fantastic murals, historical markers, and other sights I completely missed in the car ride. There’s interesting stuff to see and do everywhere. 

Even if you don’t have extra days in town, you can do a lot with an extra hour or two. I recently did a keynote in Atlanta where I flew in and out on the same day, but still was able to get to lunch at a vegan-friendly Salvadoran spot (with tasty pupusas!) and enjoy a cup of coffee while catching up on my email at an artsy independent coffee shop nearby with a live DJ and a great culture. It’s worth researching the area for options on Yelp, Google Maps, etc.

I also have an arrangement that I feel really lucky about in that my husband, who is a professional photographer (who also travels a lot for his work on his own), is a legitimate asset to my business so we work it out so that he accompanies me on many of my trips to capture visual content: photos of me on stage as well as candid “documentary-style” snaps of the behind-the-scenes speaker life. And he usually books other photoshoots in each city, so it helps his business too. Which means we get to see the world together while we’re both working. 

Are there easier ways to manage travel logistics so that a work trip doesn’t completely interfere with day-to-day work?

KO: I schedule my life in advance on my calendar, sometimes down to the detail of when to go to sleep in a different time zone, so that I can plan out time for calls and meetings and catching up on work when people in other time zones are working so I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to be able to take care of keeping my business running. 

TripIt Pro and Flighty are both apps that help a lot with keeping my travel details sorted. 

What advice would you offer to a new professional who is excited to enter the world of business travel?

KO: Enjoy the excitement! So many people get jaded by business travel and lose the joy of it. 

What are the top travel hacks you swear by?

KO: The Timeshifter app has more or less eradicated jet lag for me. Last April when I flew to Hong Kong I was able to arrive and head right to the evening mixer, give a keynote the next day, and stick around for the mixer that evening. Meanwhile several of the attendees from other countries were struggling to stay awake throughout the day and some missed out on the networking because they had to crash. I had all the energy I needed because I followed what the app told me to do and when. It’s a life changer. 

Another hack, I guess you could call it, is that I always try to eat locally and socially — between Google Maps, Yelp, and other directories it’s nearly always possible to find great food options, and meals are a great opportunity to catch up with local friends and business acquaintances — but I bring plenty of my own food and snacks as a backup plan, especially for international trips.  

How can business travels truly embrace the travel experience each and every time and reinvigorate their sense of professional purpose?

KO: Be present wherever you are.

Stay curious. Have a little adventure. 

If you have the chance to get out and around local people, do it. After all, business is just people doing something valuable for other people. It’s still about people. What better way to connect more deeply with what you and why you do it than to meet people where they are? 

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