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Digital solutions replacing academic travel during the corona pandemic – what can we learn? : a mixed methods study of experiences at SLU

Smidvik, Hanna; Planting Mollaoglu, Emil; Bergeling, Emma; Olsson, Felicia


During the spring of 2020, the corona pandemic created an entirely new context for university employees to work within. In a matter of weeks, it became customary to replace physical meetings with digital alternatives whenever possible. Conferences, seminars, meetings and doctoral thesis defences – among other activities – were moved to digital platforms. Meanwhile, many activities were either postponed or cancelled. The crisis resulted in a vast decrease in air travel and significantly reduced physical mobility. Increased digitalisation and reduced emissions from aviation were central to SLU’s policies and strategies prior to the corona pandemic. A part of SLU's ambition of becoming a climate-neutral university by 2027 is to significantly reduce emissions from business trips and, since 2016, SLU is requested by the Swedish government to increase the share of digital and travel free meetings. SLU is also developing a new strategy for 2021-2025. A better understanding of the implications of increased digitalisation is highly relevant in this work. This study aims to provide a better understanding of how SLU staff members experienced the drastic reduction in travel and the increased use of digital solutions during the spring of 2020. We also want to shed light on what types of activities – that originally were intended to include a business trip – could be replaced by a digital alternative with maintained or improved quality and what activities that on the contrary were difficult or impossible to carry out using a digital alternative. In order to fulfil our aims, we conducted a mixed-methods study based on semistructured interviews and an online survey. The results from the survey indicate that a majority (83%) of the respondents have experienced that their work in general was either mainly positively affected, equal parts negatively and positively affected, or not affected at all by the decrease in business travel and increase in digital meetings. The respondents also painted a picture as to what activities that can work well and what activities that will be difficult to perform digitally after the corona crisis. Fieldwork stood out as the least suitable activity to perform digitally, as 60% of the respondents could imagine replacing 0% or 0-25% of the fieldwork with digital solutions. What stood out on the opposite side was that a vast majority thought that between 50-100% of project meetings, administrative meetings and seminars could be replaced with digital options. As for workshops, conferences, and reviews and presentation of research, the opinions varied much more. These findings also resonate with the experiences that were brought up in the interviews. Summary Some of the main findings in the interviews was that digital meetings were perceived as more efficient, but that they lacked in terms of social and creative aspects. Furthermore, informants largely agreed that brainstorming, spontaneous discussions and forming of new relationships was harder to achieve digitally. On the other hand, well-structured interactions with a clear agenda between people that had previously met in person worked excellent on digital platforms. Many informants expressed that they were surprised regarding how well the digital meetings had worked and pointed to the many benefits of replacing travel with digital solutions in terms of increased equality, accessibility, efficiency, reduced stress and reduced emissions. Looking forward, participants talked about a better mix of digital and physical activities. Many believed that some activities – for example establishing new relationships and performing fieldwork – to a larger extent than other activities require travel for maintained quality. Other types of activities – such as administrative meetings, project meetings, seminars and presentations – were considered possible to replace with digital solutions to a higher degree with maintained, or even enhanced, quality of work and life. The study concludes:

  • A majority of the SLU employees that participated in our study reported that it in general had worked well to replace longer business trips with digital alternatives during the spring of 2020.
  • Our quantitative findings illustrate that an overwhelming majority of the respondents thought that their work and research either had been mainly positively affected, equal parts positively and negatively affected, or not affected at all by them not being able to travel.
  • Certain types of fieldwork and data collection, as well as activities requiring spontaneous discussions and networking were experienced as the most difficult to perform digitally.
  • Well-structured interactions with a clear agenda and people that had previously met in person, as well as activities such as administrative meetings, project meetings and seminars, were perceived as most suited to perform digitally.
  • The study recommends a better mix between digital and physical meetings in a post-corona context. SLU should strategically make use of digital solutions and replace longer business trips to improve the work situation of the employees, the quality of their work in addition to reducing GHG emissions.


digital meetings; academic traveling; academic exchange; travel policy; corona pandemic; climate change; emissions reduction; business trips; Covid-19

Published in

eISBN: 978-91-576-9794-3
Publisher: Faculties at SLU in collaboration, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences