Is remote delivery the future of international climate consultancy?
2020 was a year when everyone was forced to change the way they worked. For many, it has meant their commute is now measured in seconds not minutes and their work attire more often includes slippers than a suit. For those that work internationally, it has meant far fewer hours spent in airports, cramped in plane seats and recovering from jetlag. However, it has also meant more hours spent dealing with spotty internet connections, animal and human interruptions, and working in the middle of the night to account for different time zones.
Travelling internationally has always been a counterintuitive part of climate consultancy, with in-country missions racking up air miles and the associated carbon footprint. However, these emissions should be offset many times over by work done well. The logic being that building the capacity of a government to decarbonise its electricity grid or improve the energy efficiency of its industries, will more than make up for carbon emitted on the flights taken by trainers to deliver the capacity building itself. These emissions are factored into the cost-benefit analysis of how Ricardo operates and emissions that can’t be avoided are offset.
Many have said that working practices have now changed for good and for the better, and that international trips will become less common as the world adjusts to remote working after having this past year to prove it works.
So, beyond the reduction in air miles, what other benefits are there to remote delivery?
Well, less travel can mean cost savings (such as those for flights, hotels, food and taxis), which means that the overall project cost can be lowered or the savings used to deliver more capacity-building support. However, it’s not just the financial cost, but also the time saved that would be spent organising the trip, on planes and in taxies; and the lost productivity from trying to squeeze other work in around the edges of a busy itinerary.
Another significant benefit is the flexibility that remote delivery can provide. A consultant can spend the morning delivering support to an East African, Middle Eastern or Asian government and then spend the afternoon supporting governments in Latin America or the Small Island States in the Caribbean. Also, as remote delivery becomes more normalised, it will make it easier to facilitate exchanges between governments and therefore the sharing of experiences internationally.
Finally, last-minute changes of plans are always going to happen. When delivering remotely, these changes can be absorbed and adapted to much more readily than if you’ve already travelled halfway around the world to attend a meeting that has now been postponed.
Is remote delivery the way forward then or are there drawbacks?
Delivering capacity-building support remotely may have its own challenges, especially if it involves coordinating a meeting across the world between tens of people – each in a different location. Success relies on the attendees having suitable internet capacity, adequate devices to access the session and familiarity with the tools used to engage interactively. It also relies on timeliness and coordination in each country between disparate contacts, as well as an absence of interruptions and distractions for all parties.
Remote delivery can also make it more difficult to form personal connections. These usually occur naturally when people are together. However, when working remotely, people may feel one step removed from the process that’s taking place – perhaps resulting in dampened feelings of collective momentum and enthusiasm that might otherwise fill a room. When people take time out of their schedule and come together to attend a workshop, it gives credibility to the activity – especially if those attending include senior government officials. This also means participants are often more engaged, which is difficult to achieve when people are simply dialling in before going back to their day-to-day work.
Moreover, there are no opportunities for the spontaneous conversations that build trust between participants, provide critical context to the material presented and help government representatives find and explore connections between their departments. The information that is shared during a break, or over a dinner or drink at the end of the day, can be invaluable by providing the critical missing puzzle pieces needed to solve a problem. While more and more innovative tools try to bridge this gap by providing a way for people to have these interactions through their computer, there is, in many ways, no replacement for being there in person.
So, what does this mean for the future of international travel and remote working?
The way forward
The way forward might be a combined approach. Using digital tools for remote delivery as much as possible, but also making sure that in-person attendance isn’t eliminated. What will be critical in refining this approach is to understand those locations, tasks and engagement activities where remote delivery is most appropriate, and those where in-person engagement remains essential for an effective outcome. From there, it will be about exploring where local partners can deliver the content and where the greatest value will come from the consultant themselves attending. Whatever the solution, it won’t be one size fits all.
Presentations of technical content can be recorded in advance or presented remotely live with little issue. However, training stakeholders in the use of a certain tool or facilitating the interaction of many people at once can be challenging. Not only is it more vulnerable to technical glitches, but it can also mean that the voices of more senior members of staff feature more in the discussions as others feel less confident in speaking up, thus distorting the outputs of the workshop. In an in-person situation, this can be mitigated more readily as the chair can engage more organically with the participants, structuring break-out groups as necessary and calling on individuals to get the full range of opinions. Assessing what has or hasn’t worked and why, and sharing experiences will be essential in determining the best way forward.
Travelling internationally has always been seen as a necessary part of being a climate consultant, but 2020 challenged that idea. Consultants were forced to adapt the way they worked and, because of that, more governments than ever could be reached and many tonnes of harmful emissions avoided. However, this new way of working came with a new set of challenges, making it more difficult for consultants to perhaps have the same impact as they would when working in-country.
As the world begins to open-up in the near future, consultants can work with clients to develop hybrid approaches to suit each respective culture and context. They will be able to use remote delivery to lower the costs and emissions associated with a project, while being more targeted with the use of international trips and leveraging local expertise where possible to ensure the impact of the work is maximised. Consultants have to be adaptable – it’s the nature of the business – and what we’ve learned over the past year is that we are all more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. This adaptability must be taken forward to develop a new way of working that maximises the input consultants can make to projects whilst also ensuring that the way we work is more resilient, allowing us to adapt more readily to other changes we might face in the future.