The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the workplace, activating experimentation and reimagination of work practices as offices around the globe closed and people continued their work from home. Now, more than three years later, research shows the level of work happening at home among U.S. workers has settled in around 30%, a fall from its 2020 peak and a sixfold increase compared with 2019. While the data differs around the world, the trend lines are similar globally.
As work arrangements stabilize, employees and employers are now navigating the challenges of balancing remote work flexibility with in-person work – from logistical coordination to equity considerations to relationship building. As a leadership coach, I see this playing out daily across industries as managers and senior leaders work to build trust in a virtual setting, design meaningful in-person retreats, rethink onboarding processes, and ensure early career employees have ample mentorship opportunities.
The travel industry, deeply impacted by pandemic travel restrictions and staff shortages, has embraced flexible work arrangements more than many industries. Airbnb, for instance, announced last year its new flexible approach to allowing employees to live and work from anywhere. That is not surprising with a workforce inclined towards wanderlust.
As a former travel industry executive turned leadership coach, I grew curious about what the travel industry has learned about creating engaged and productive workplaces during the past three years. So, I spoke with eight leaders who have led their travel organizations through the pandemic. Each of their organizations has settled on a different virtual or hybrid work arrangement – no two are identical; but they share a commitment to flexible work models because of the tangible benefits they see for their organizations and their employees.
The leaders I interviewed shared poignant insights, creative solutions, and inspiring leadership approaches. They expressed a spirit of global connectedness and a future-focus that does not aim to return to past norms, but rather to seek out and embrace present and future opportunities.
Below are eight key learnings on building and sustaining engaged and high-performing virtual and hybrid teams.
With increased flexibility, employees are more productive and happier.
The leaders I spoke with expressed a deep care for their teams, their communities, and their customers. From that care emerges an adaptive and collaborative approach to designing work policies that consider a wide range of employee needs, which often are mutually beneficial to the company as a whole.
Heather Heverling, the president of Adventure Women, leads a hybrid organization in which employees can work outside of the office two days per week. She reflected that, “The events of the past three years have necessitated leaders in the travel industry to rethink, reexamine, and reimagine traditional approaches to almost every aspect of the business. What has become increasingly clear is that you need to be creative and flexible, and you need to embrace the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to strengthening culture and engagement.” Heverling will be moving into a new role as the president and managing director of North America for Audley Travel starting next month.
Shannon Stowell, the CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), has led a virtual team since 2014. For the ATTA, flexibility looks like emphasizing to staff that family comes first, and supporting staff to take the time off they need when they are faced with a difficult family situation.
Cayuga Collection’s corporate and reservation teams went fully virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, cutting out hour-long commutes for some of their staff living in different parts of Costa Rica. “Considering what makes people happy and what works for them was important,” said co-owner and president Hans Pfister. “And of course, at the same time, it had to work for us in terms of the performance. And actually, performance has improved. It’s a win-win.”
Flexible work opens the door to the best global talent.
The ability to attract and retain the best global talent is one of the key benefits of hybrid and remote work models. Ben Perlo, the president and CEO of G Adventures, leads a hybrid global team. Perlo told me, “The potential candidate pool is wider than ever now with hybrid work, and that’s very exciting.”
Increasingly, employees are seeking out flexible work when looking for their next job opportunity, and offering flexible work arrangements means that many companies can recruit without worrying about geographic restrictions.
James Henderson, the CEO of Exclusive Resorts, leads a hybrid workplace that includes both remote and in-person employees. This flexibility particularly allows the company to attract employees with families and those that do not want to relocate for a job. He shared that flexibility has become less of a want and more of a need for employees to perform their best. Transitioning to a hybrid working model has also brought record-breaking growth, reaffirming that “success is not defined by where you work, but by how you work.”
Kate Simpson, the president of Academic Travel Abroad, told me that in 73 years, the company has faced its share of challenges. “Crises always present opportunity. This pandemic has centered us on what is most important, so we emerge committed to build back better,” Simpson said. As a result, Academic Travel Abroad shifted to a hybrid model in which employees come into the office two days per week. To support staff retention, the company also implemented a 30-hour work week and streamlined meeting schedules and workflows to improve efficiencies.
Strong lived values and a shared vision are the foundation for a healthy culture.
The pandemic reinforced the importance of cultivating a shared set of organizational values and an inspiring vision for the future to lay the groundwork for meaningful and productive virtual and in-person work. The leaders I interviewed emphasized the deep work of nurturing lived values that guide behaviors and decision-making throughout the organization.
Stowell talked about putting mission first at ATTA. “We’ve always had a very clear and strong voice for sustainability in the space and it has attracted an amazing team, advisors, members, and partners. If the mission is meaningful and huge, yet personal, absolutely amazing people show up.” Stowell added that in difficult times, such as during and in recovery from the pandemic, “If you don’t have a strong culture, you lose everything and everyone.”
For Henderson, during times of great disruption it is especially important to create a cohesive vision that inspires employees and that brings them along on the journey, “creating a movement with its own momentum.” He shared, “Our success is not just defined on an organizational level — but a personal level.”
Some of the core values that arose as most important among the leaders I spoke with include trust, empowerment, and authenticity.
“Trust is key in remote work. It requires an extra level of interaction and relationship since you can’t be in a physical space and sense through facial expressions and body language how someone is faring,” Stowell said.
At Cayuga Collection, values are non-negotiable. “Our sustainability practices only got stronger during the pandemic,” said Pfister. “We didn’t cut any corners in that way, and I think that is something that has tied us together as well.”
Creating and maintaining open lines of communication is more important than ever
The technological advancements of recent years have made it possible for organizations to work in coordinated and effective ways without being in the same location. Technology doesn’t replace but rather helps to enhance communication workflows and best practices. The leaders I interviewed all spoke about the increased importance of transparent and authentic communication, listening to truly understand, and being accessible and open to feedback.
Looking back on the early days of the pandemic, Simpson remarked how important ongoing communication is, especially in a crisis. “I instituted a weekly executive update that allowed me to communicate what was going on to all staff worldwide in a personal way and allowed staff everywhere to feel connected to leadership and be in the loop on what we were doing and what our outlook was.” In early 2022, Simpson and her team presented a timeline of the pandemic to remind staff of where they had been, all they had done, and where they were at that moment in time.
Open communication from team members to their managers is equally important. Stowell shared the importance of, “carefully and thoughtfully listening your way into understanding what a problem’s core is as best you can. Then dealing with it quickly and decisively.”
Echoing this sentiment, Perlo shared that at G Adventures, “Leadership, right up to our founder Bruce Poon Tip, is always available – our staff knows that.”
Thoughtfully designed in-person experiences are still essential.
Building opportunities for teams to create real human connection and strong relationships is vital in any workplace, and hybrid and virtual teams are no exception. When workplaces move to hybrid and remote models, it necessitates the intentional design and facilitation of in-person relationship-building experiences. The leaders I spoke with shared a myriad of creative solutions to help their staff connect, collaborate, and socialize: annual in-person retreats, quarterly in-person gatherings, Monday-morning check-in meetings, team dinners at industry events, and more.
“Providing a space for the [Adventure Women] team to connect on a human level during work time fosters connection, collaboration, understanding, and support,” said Heverling.
Nick Stanziano, the co-founder and chief explorer at SA Expeditions, said that when the company went virtual in 2014, they had to “get better at storytelling in order to establish a shared culture and mutual understanding of our mission.” Yet, in-person time to connect is still a priority. Stanziano added that, “Company retreats are fundamental to a cohesive culture and making sure the company has sufficient social capital to operate.”
For G Adventures, “building and maintaining a healthy staff culture – making sure that staff feel empowered, valued, trusted and respected – is the foundation and starting point,” Perlo said. Building culture and engagement through social connection has long been a top priority for the company. During the pandemic, they added new programs that included weekly virtual fitness classes led by an Olympic athlete, “think tank Thursdays”, town hall meetings, and purely social gatherings like “beer/beverage-o’clock”.
Performance-based compensation aligns employee and company interests.
Several of the leaders I spoke with shared their enthusiasm for performance-based compensation models, leaning into data and metrics to help create a culture based on trust and accountability, and to align the interests of the individual with the interests of the organization.
SA Expeditions has designed a compensation structure that is entirely metric-based, competitive, and transparent. They pair this model with a comprehensive mentoring program. According to Stanziano, “It’s about being a human-first company that uses digital tools to achieve our mission more effectively. What could be more appropriate in the new travel economy?”
Adrià Lacorte is the founder of Aniyami, a DMC in Brazil that went fully virtual in 2020 and plans to continue that way. Lacorte and his team have rebuilt the organization post-pandemic with a focus on sharing accountability across the company. “We transferred earnings (low and high) to employees, making them accountable for low as well as high results,” Lacorte said.
And just this month, Academic Travel Abroad gave out their first profit sharing bonuses in two years to all staff.
Robust onboarding and retention practices support the integration and growth of new hires.
Instilling strong shared values in virtual and hybrid work environments takes real effort and intentionality. Many of the leaders I spoke with hailed robust onboarding practices as a key component of this work.
At SA Expeditions, the team has learned over the last decade that virtual onboarding has to be focused, organized and have someone accountable to the new hire. Stanziano said, “At this stage in our evolution, we have an onboarding manual which is like a textbook, and a three-month onboarding period.
At Academic Travel Abroad, new hires receive welcome boxes sent to their homes with customized notebooks and welcome materials.
Retaining top talent also requires continued attention to growth opportunities after new employees are integrated. Staff shortages of the past few years have challenged leaders to be creative and resourceful in their approach to retaining effective employees – from helping staff feel grounded in a deep sense of purpose to supporting employee growth.
“People join a company because it excites or inspires them — they stay because they’re growing, developing, and learning,” according to Henderson. At Exclusive Resorts, nearly 90 individuals have been promoted over the past three years. “If you work hard, we will find opportunities for you to grow.”
As work becomes more geographically distributed and the world continues to change rapidly and increase in complexity, leaders are shifting how they conceptualize their company in relation to the larger systems in which they operate. Many of the leaders I spoke with embraced this type of global systems thinking, focusing on our interconnectedness and the rapidly changing nature of work.
Stanziano takes his inspiration from natural systems and sees organizations today like the famous Bubble Nebula captured by the Hubble telescope – with porous rather than impermeable borders. “We don’t conceptualize ourselves as a standalone company, and instead a node in a larger industry ecosystem,” he said.
At G Adventures, they’ve learned that just because something has always been done one way does not mean there aren’t other possibilities that may work just as well, or better. “There are so many ways to get from point A to point B, and we’re very open to finding new ways of working and achieving goals,” Perlo said.
“There has been a lot of debate about whether remote or in-person work is better, and I would argue that one isn’t better than the other; they are merely different,” Heverling shared. “In my view, the hybrid model allows the company, the employee, and the larger team to benefit from the best that both remote and in-person work have to offer. There is tremendous power and potential in a ‘both/and’ approach versus an ‘either/or’ perspective. Embrace change; don’t fight it.”
We live, work, and lead in a highly dynamic time. What works in an organization is specific to its size, purpose, and culture. As leaders and employees continue to gain experience in hybrid and virtual work environments, there will be additional learnings, and policies and norms will continue to evolve. Today’s leaders – in the travel industry and beyond – are not guiding their organizations down the calm, flat waters of stability and certainty. They are navigating the choppy whitewater of volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. The skills and strategies needed in this ever-changing and highly challenging context – as the eight leaders I spoke with highlighted – include a people-first mindset, an ability to remain curious and adaptable, a focus on building trust and empowerment,