One of the collisions between work and life has to do with travel. Why travel? Well travel tends to be a bigger and bigger element of the world of the professional. This is true even with the adoption of technologies like business Skype and telepresence systems. If anything these systems encourage even more travel as connections are made more quickly and eventually on site visits are required out of these customers and partners.
Let’s be real for a moment. If your a welder, then you most likely can sleep at home every night. Ditto for teacher. It’s different for the professional individual contributor. If you an engineer who services a highly technical piece of equipment then more than likely you are going to travel, and travel a lot. This is true for sale reps for technical product lines like software or electronics. It’s also true for auditors or controllers who have a larger geographic area of responsibility. The point is that it’s not just the manager or leaders who are traveling to the different sites anymore. It’s the coordinator, the engineer, the service rep, the trainer. Heck, even the individual HR professional may have multiple sites they are responsible for and spend more time living out of a suitcase than their bedroom closet. There is even a common term for it, the road warrior, which used to mean a traveling sales professional, but now it could mean any traveling professional.
There are many health risks when traveling and admittedly they are pretty scary. They include accelerated ageing, extensive exposure to germs and radiation for those who fly often, healthy eating issues, etc. There are also big family issues relating to a parent or spouse being semi-absent much of the time. Each of these could be the genesis of an article or a series of articles because they are individually large topics for great conversations to expand on what’s already out there. But these health related conversations don’t really touch on the culture of vices while on the road. That is the focus of this essay.
Vices of the Road:
What are the big road vices? Road vices are typical vices that are seen everywhere but are enabled to a much greater degree when you are a regularly traveling professional. In my experience there are three that are sort of the ‘stand outs’. I’m sure there are many others, but the big three I see repeated over and over are related to Alcohol, Food, and Sex. The challenge with them is that even if you are a highly self controlled individual, you can’t escape the effect of these three vices if someone on your team has one.
Alcohol is the biggest offender but not like you would think. The alcohol vice affects the traveling professional when they work with people who have one of the two types of alcohol related vices. The first of the two is the committed social drinker and the second is the full blown functional alcoholic.
The social drinker: The social drinker isn’t an alcoholic in that they can do without but they prefer not to. You tend to see the social drinker in sales positions where they are always attending or organizing the post convention shows. They are the social butterflies continually encouraging the team to hang out at the restaurant ordering pitcher after pitcher of beer. The problem with the social drinker isn’t specifically that they let the alcohol consume them, it’s that the alcohol is one of the main tools used to foster connections to those around them. Their desire to drink socially encourages group meetings, conventions, attendance at hospitality suites, etc. These things, sometimes for organizational or political reasons, can be unofficially mandatory. The introvert or non drinker feels they usually should attend and unfortunately attendance usually means most of the night. The non social drinker simply can’t go back to their hotel room and rest, or catch up on the work that has piled up because they have been traveling all day. Simply put, because there will be no rest or catching up on the work load and so the next day is harder. Even for longer trips, where there is multiple nights on the business trip, it’s expected that the team has to get together for social drinking multiple times.
The alcoholic: For the most part you don’t have destructive alcoholism in the professional world. You couldn’t stay a professional for long if you did have self-destructive alcoholism. That being said, I have seen professionals go their entire life being a functional alcoholic. You can usually tell who they are right away because the have rosacea, a skin disorder that starts with a tendency to blush and flush easily. You usually see it in the face and eyes. This condition is also the genesis of the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer joke about why his nose is really so red. Then there is spotting on the skin and a physique that is heavier than their activity and eating level would lead you to believe it should be.
The biggest tell sign is that every single night they are focused on ‘entertaining guests’ or ‘watching the game’ at a local bar. They are like the social drinker but they are relentless. It’s simply no fun to be around them. The challenge for the traveling professional is the inability to avoid them. It’s not just during the period of heavy drinking at night watching their aberrant behavior or hearing the same stories again and again. All the next day you have to put up with the reflections of conquests and interests from the night before. In the odd situations where everyone on the trip agrees to just stay in, they may make a comment about getting a twelve pack or going by the ABC store and spending the night in. This is classic alcoholism. As I said earlier I’ve found that most of these alcoholics are functioning. It’s amazed me how there can be someone who can barely stand up at night, yet who is up bright and early the next morning working on the project and professional as ever.
The foodie: This is the guy / gal who likes to eat out. They go out to nice lunches, nice dinners, and nice breakfasts. They are more focused on trying the local restaurant of note are are disgusted at the thought of just swinging through a drive through. The problem with the foodie is similar to the social drinker. Your not really stuck drinking pitchers of beer or mixed drinks all night, but it’s a huge drain on your after hours time. Generally if your traveling with a foodie then you only have a short window of opportunity after the work day before you have to meet in the lobby and then there is the time to decide where to go, the time at the restaurant, and then the travel back. Bottom line is that it’s a long and arduous process. Yes, you’ll get great food. I remember, even today the first time I had stingray and how good it tasted.
This is not a bad idea, the big dinner I mean. It’s great if you only travel once or twice a year. It helps make the travel more fun and exotic. It does let you learn about the people you interact with on a more social level. The challenge comes from the professional who is the road warrior working in an organization where the culture is for daily big and expensive after hours meals together. Eating out every single night is very draining. If you haven’t had this opportunity and can’t imagine how arduous it can be, just ask some people who have to travel two to three weeks out of every month who are a little bit further into their careers. More often than not you’ll hear about how much they hate having to go out and they just run through a drive through when they are traveling on their own.
One final point about challenges with the foodie has to do with the expense of eating. A subtle irritation is when the per-diem doesn’t match up with the cost of at the restaurants that the foodie likes to frequent.
The Sex Obsessed: When I talk about the sex obsessed i’m not talking about knowing every massage parlor in town and every call girl service. I’m sure that there are traveling professionals who do this. Most professionals with any experience has either known someone or heard the stories of the guy who has a girlfriend in every single city. In my experience that’s not the case. Historically the sex obsessed was the person who likes to frequent strip clubs. They loved to check out the most renowned clubs in the city they are visiting especially if there is a vendor paying or they have an expense account. In the days of the sex clubs the older traveling professionals could mostly get a pass and the younger team members would go en masse. The challenge is that like the foodie or the social drinker on the team, you don’t want to always say no to the group invite because you start to be perceived as an outsider. One reason the older guy could get a pass was that they were outsiders by default in burn and churn organizations with lots of younger professionals. Younger people by default have a higher population density with this particular vice.
Another challenge is the cost, if you are paying on your own dime those places are sickeningly expensive. Then there is the flirtations that always turn into exaggerated stories the next day of the potential faux conquest. “Dude she was so into you, you could totally have taken her home!” is one of many similar lines I’ve heard dozens times from team members the morning after the night out. The reality is the only thing she would go home with was his money.
Things have changed in the last two decades. The ubiquity of internet access to sex related products and services, internet porn, camming, etc has changed the sex club industry from the primary outlet for the sex obsessed to a tangential one. Although there are arguments that the strip clubs can’t be replaced by the internet, the numbers tell a different story. Even if every strip club was outlawed or closed up the sex obsessed traveling professional will never go away. The stories about the stripper who was so into them will transfer to the Hooters waitress, or heck, even the girl at the bar at the Applebee’s. The sex obsessed will always want to go where the girls are. They will always want to talk about girls to the extent that political correctness will allow and then maybe just put a toe over that line.
What Came first, the vice or the travel?
I’ve mentioned that the traveling professional’s vices are enabled by the travel and the related expense accounts and / or privacy afforded by copious amounts of time on the road. One question with this particular commentary that is hard to answer is: what comes first? Does the travel enable the behaviors, or does the behaviors encourage a life that includes travel? Does the alcoholic or social butterfly bar hopper decide to stick with a traveling job because it enables their chosen form of after hours social engagement? Did a regular person adapt to using alcohol or strip clubs to help dull the interpersonal challenges and lack of human connections stemming from life on the road? The answer may be yes and no depending on the personality. I’ve personally changed. I used to be a foodie but over the years and the grilled chicken from the McDonalds drive through or ten minutes at Zaxby’s eating a salad became much more enticing to me. That being said this is the kind of question that is really more open to a scientific study. You’d need a control group and a test group and figure out who spends more time engaged with the vices. Who had the tendency and with what degrees have their vices been enabled through travel? This would be an interesting study to take on. If I was a researcher I would absolutely love to look into it. Unfortunately I’m not a researcher, I’m a commentator on subjects relating to the collision between work and life so I concentrate on the practical. To that end, the practical question to be answered here is: What should you do about all this?
How do you deal with it?
One of the benefits of the industrial age is the processization of the workflow that naturally influences and structures the lives and interactions of those that work in the modern economy. It’s especially true if you work in an office based setting. In these situations regular office based work days are mostly the norm, even if they are 12+ hours long. After hours events are also minimal, regularly scheduled and ritualized. There is the Christmas party and that’s pretty much it these days. All of this structure goes out the door when you are traveling because, by default, there is much less of an regular process to work and life while on the road. Dealing with the challenges of business travel gets harder when you have to work closely with those that are engaged with the big three vices of travel. Sometimes you can get away with ‘one night out’ by using the excuse that you have to catch up on work. The problem is that you can’t do it every night otherwise you’ll be branded as someone who is not really a team player.
I have learned some rules of thumb for mitigating the effects of life on the road:
Rule number 1: Always go to the first night out. If you go out on the first night you’ll be able to ‘reconnect’ with your professional associates. The first night out may be chronologically the second night of a trip, but it’s the big night when everyone finally arrives. Additionally it’s good to make an appearance at future nights. By putting in at least an appearance at at least ½ the nights you can eventually completely avoid the other half.
Rule number 2: Leverage your options by being proactive. Volunteer to do the tasks by yourself, or be more savvy in your travel planning. Maybe you can be the person who is the designated driver for the customer who needs to get back early. You can try and schedule overlapping trips so you have ‘fly out early’ and then go do something with someone else. The best way to do it is to be the person who both handles a problem of the vice holder as well as is seen as sacrificing for the team. Then you avoid being labeled an outsider.
Rule number 3: Encourage activities with built in limiters. If you know a restaurant closes at 9pm, but has a great menu, then suggest that place while casually forgetting to mention the early close time. This can be a bit challenging, especially with the alcoholic who will want to go out to a bar after dinner, but it is a strategy.
Rule number 4: Remember that your not alone. Generally speaking there are only a few people in the group whose decision making is driven by their vices. When traveling understand who is susceptible to the vices and who isn’t. When it comes to group decision making be prepared to subtly encourage the one’s who want limits on the nights activities. This way you don’t kill yourself on the nights you have to go out or make an appearance.
Rule number 5: Start thinking about the ‘end in mind’. A classic habit of highly successful people is that they begin their activities with the end goal clearly delineated. The challenge with a job with regular travel is that there is usually no ‘end’. Even if it’s a big ad-hoc project, there is sure to be another one coming up next. If you really don’t like the traveling lifestyle and the personalities that you encounter on the road then start exploring your options both within and external to your organization. You may want to start considering options outside your industry if your industry is heavy with travel by design. What credentials do you need to get? What will make you more valuable and allow you to travel less? Start to think about it, plan for it, and use what little time you have by yourself on the road prepping for it. Yes there are normal people who live on the road for their entire careers, but they are few and far between. It’s those with the vices that tend to stick around a traveling job for the long haul. Most only go through that sort of lifestyle for a period of time, so it’s best to plan for you to make your exit rather than someone else facilitating your exit for you.
Maybe the next time your stuck at one of those after-hours meals and you’d rather not be there you can figure out a way to turn the situation to your advantage. When the social drinker is ordering everyone another round, rather than just smiling and going with the flow you can direct the conversation to people who used to travel with the team and don’t anymore. Yes, you’ll have to flog through the war stories of the old adventures, but in that conversation there may be some insight in how they ‘got out’ of the game. Pay special attention to those who stopped traveling and didn’t take a hit to their personal bottom line as traveling gigs usually pay higher than other jobs in an industry. Then at least you’ll get some good ideas on planning your exit. This turns the evening from being another wasted night dealing with the vice obsessed team members to one of true opportunity for making your life better. That’s definitely worth raising a glass in appreciation. It’ll probably be the best glass you raise all night!