Electronic Design

Managing Travel And Design Conflicts

Today, many engineers find themselves traveling for business reasons. With an increasing number of business and technology partnerships, conferences, trade shows, and acquisitions, as well as geographically distant development teams, you could find yourself out of the office or lab for several weeks of the year. Of course, field engineers or those giving technical presentations can easily spend 50% or more of their time traveling to customer sites.

As you move up into engineering management, it's common for the travel demands to become even greater. Partnerships with other companies, customers with enough clout to demand a manager at meetings, and briefings at headquarters all take time out of our development schedule, and out of our personal lives.

Balancing this increased travel load with work and family responsibil-ities can be daunting. Mundane chores, such as checking your e-mail at work, or doing your laundry at home, can become burdensome with frequent travel. If your family depends on you to participate in after-school or weekend activities, you might find yourself stretched too thin. But there are some things that you can do to relieve the stress from business travel.

Manage your travel. In many situations, the demand for business travel seems to pop up at unexpected times, and you have to respond immediately. In reality, most business travel can be planned well in advance and only appears unplanned when you're not prepared for it. For example, if you attend technical conferences, plan out your conference schedule a year ahead. If you sometimes accompany your salesperson on customer visits, get a commitment from sales at least a month prior to the travel date.

Part of managing your travel also has to do with staking out the parameters of your job. A lot of your unplanned travel possibly pertains to support for customer visits or partner meetings. But if these activities interfere with engineering development schedules, then you probably won't be able to do both. Explain the tradeoff to your manager or the person requesting you to travel. Get a commitment from your manager that engineering development takes priority.

Turn down trips that don't contribute to the performance of your primary activities, or suggest that someone else go in your place. As a last resort, attempt to schedule the trip at a time when your engineering activities slow down, so that you don't fall behind at a critical point.

Stay in touch with both your office and your family. Checking your voice mail and e-mail daily means that you won't have to face 50 voice-mail and five hundred e-mail messages when you come back. If you don't normally use a notebook computer in the office, ask the MIS department to set you up with a temporary one before you leave. Reserve an hour before breakfast or after dinner to catch up with your day-to-day work. Also, be sure that the colleagues covering for you have all of the information necessary to accomplish the task.

Staying in touch with your family is even more important. Once, while we were traveling, the wife of a colleague had an auto accident. For immediate contact in such emergencies, I recommend investing in a personal cell phone that only your family has the number to, and always keep it on. Family members may call at inconvenient times, but being there when they need you is more important than interrupting yet another meeting.

When I'm in a different time zone, I also try to keep the same sleep schedule as I would when I'm at home. This helps your body adjust better to the time-change, reducing "jet lag" and enabling you to more quickly get back on your normal schedule when you return home. While this isn't usually possible on international travel, you can almost always do it when going to any location in the U.S. or Canada.

Eat sensibly and get some exercise. Eating restaurant food for all of your meals and working all of your waking hours is one of the least healthy things that you can do. The food is much richer than you're used to, and the lack of exercise can make you tired and cause you to gain weight. Try to vary your menu as much as possible, eating smaller portions or different combinations of food. I typically eat breakfast and dinner on the road, and go for a walk at lunch.

As for working the long hours, many engineers rationalize it by saying that there's nothing else to do when traveling. Being in a new city is no excuse for not finding good leisure activities. It's unreasonable for your employer to expect you to work fourteen hours a day, unless you do so back at the office. (In that case, you have another problem entirely.) You should work a normal day, and schedule time for relaxation, talking to your family, and eating sit-down meals.

Choose your own flights and flight times. This allows you a measure of control over your trip, and lets you plan around any personal or family activities. Selecting your own flights can be challenging when you have a corporate travel desk employed to minimize travel expenses. Travel desks will often book your flights based on the minimum price and their own convenience, rather than your needs. You could be stuck with flights that are the least expensive, but cost you both time and effort.

I have managed to circumvent corporate travel desks by researching flight alternatives on Expedia or Travelocity Web sites before calling the travel agent. I can almost always find low-cost flights that the travel agent will accept and are more convenient to me. As long as the price sounds reasonable, they will rarely bother doing research themselves. I have simply copied my own flight information onto the travel request form, and it has never been rejected.

Consider using a secondary airport that might be more easily accessible for you, or offer better facilities. For example, Boston's Logan Airport is the nearest major airport to me. But because Logan is surrounded by highway construction, it's difficult to get to during rush hour. Plus, parking is practically impossible. So instead, I typically fly out of Manchester, N.H., a regional airport served by major carriers, which is easier to get to and has excellent parking.

Additionally, it's a good idea to research the on-time percentage of your flights, available from either Expedia or Travelocity. If you have a 30-minute layover, for instance, and your incoming flight shows a 40% on-time performance, you may want to consider a different connection.

Furthermore, obtain nice accommodations. Getting plenty of rest is critical to your job performance on the road. If you're on a per diem, spend it at a decent hotel. Research hotels on the Web or via a travel agency like AAA. Ask for the opinions of friends and colleagues. If you're staying for more than a night or two, consider a suite hotel that offers a sitting room, bedroom, and often a small kitchen. These usually cost no more than a standard hotel room. Last year, I found an excellent suite hotel in the Raleigh, N.C. area, at a reasonable price, and even obtained a discount coupon from the Chamber of Commerce Web site to boot.

Be sure that your work location is easy to get to from your hotel. You can't predict what the traffic patterns will be like in a new city. A half-hour drive on Sunday could turn into a two-hour commute Monday morning. Also, know where you're going to eat your morning and evening meals, so you don't waste your time driving across town to restaurants.

Make certain that your personal responsibilities are being managed. This is especially important if you're going to be away from home for weeks or even months at a time. Find a friend to collect your mail, pay your bills, watch your house or apartment, and perhaps take your car out for a spin. If you have family members who depend on you, they must know where to turn with problems encountered during your absence. If necessary, go to a lawyer and execute a limited power of attorney. Then, someone else that you trust can make decisions and sign checks or documents in your name if necessary.

Finally, if you're not in a hurry to return home when your business is concluded, take an extra couple of days at the end of your trip and fill them with leisure activities. This will help you relax before going back to the office, and let you see and learn about an area that you might not otherwise visit. Staying over a weekend can cut the cost of your airfare too.

When you're traveling for business, it isn't always possible to take all of these things into account. But if you feel that your travel is taking away from your work performance and/or personal or family life, you can at least ease the burden a bit by planning a little in advance. This will ensure that your travel plans meet with your schedule rather than someone else's.

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