Over the past year, I’ve spent dozens of hours in a car, train, or plane next to a coworker. We Atoms travel together between offices and to client sites, outreach events, and conferences.
I’ve always loved traveling. The passing landscape provides the perfect backdrop for a nap, catching up on email, or staring out the window with my headphones turned up. Travel for work is another story. When traveling with colleagues, these behaviors can waste an opportunity to meaningfully connect with my travel partner.
Why Travel Time with Colleagues is Special
Time spent in travel represents a rarified space:
- It changes your surroundings and can pluck you out of your day-to-day mental rut.
- At least one of you can’t be buried in your phone, creating a less digitally interrupted social space.
- Travel provides private time for you and your colleagues to have a candid discussion.
These reasons make time spent traveling with colleagues not something to endure, but something to put to good use.
Your colleagues are among your greatest teachers. More than anyone, they impact your happiness at work. The knowledge they can share will help you succeed in your job and understand the dynamics at place beneath the surface.
If you’re traveling with a more junior coworker, travel time is a great opportunity to show your colleague how you embody your company’s values outside the office. They will watch you and adopt your behaviors the next time they travel for work.
Four Ways to Master the Art of Travel Time with Colleagues
Now that you’re convinced you should reframe your time spent in transit with colleagues, I’ll share my ideas about how to make the most out of the opportunity.
1. Be a good copilot.
Whether you’re driving or hustling through a terminal, travel is filled with logistical challenges. You can create an environment that’s as fertile as possible for quality time by planning ahead. The day before you travel, work out a rough timeline of your trip, noting your route, impediments like construction, meal stops, and check-in times.
This will make you look hyper-competent in the eyes of your coworker (what’s worse than getting lost with a colleague?) and limit stress on both of you. Brownie points for creating a killer playlist, printing any directions you’ll need if you lose service, and packing snacks for the trip.
2. Treat it like an interview.
The best way to avoid uncomfortable small talk is to spend some time thinking about your travel partner before you head out.
- If you’ve forgotten, brush up on the names of their partner or kids.
- Review emails they’ve recently sent for clues about the projects they’re working on.
- Jog your memory about what they like to do outside of work.
- Check social media for any recent trips they’ve taken.
Equipping yourself with some basic knowledge about your partner will show them that they matter to you and help create space for an interesting conversation.
Research in hand, memorize three good questions you think your travel partner might be interested in answering. These can restart a fizzled conversation or transition you away from awkward small talk.
3. Balance candor with boundaries.
As I said earlier, traveling provides the potential for an earnest conversation because of the lack of distractions and the sunk cost of travel time. For the same reasons, it’s also very important to respect your coworkers’ boundaries. While there can be nothing better than having uninterrupted time to get to know and better understand your colleague, there’s nothing worse than making them feel trapped in an uncomfortable situation.
Remember your etiquette, and steer clear of touchy subjects that can quickly derail a safe conversation. When in doubt, save the questionable subject for a time when you’re not trapped in the same space for hours on end.
4. Follow the “two ears, one mouth” rule
You’ve heard the saying, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I’m not totally sure about the logic there (I can’t see twice as much as I smell), but I agree with the message.
The two main benefits of traveling with colleagues are developing a relationship and learning about your company; being a good listener can help you accomplish both. On the other hand, dominating the conversation achieves neither.
Scared of silence? Learn to embrace it. Silence provides two things in long conversation: rest and time to think. In journalism school, I learned that the most interesting, honest thing people had to say generally occurred when you waited until after they finished an answer.
Allowing comfortable silence also ensures that your companion is willingly engaged in the back-and-forth. If they choose to stop talking, show off your emotional intelligence by sitting in silence.
A good trip with a coworker could help you prevent a mistake, develop compassion for a colleague, gain understanding, and even earn you a promotion. Follow these tips to make the most out of these valuable opportunities.