Preparing for the Next Normal of Business Travel: Now is the time to re-evaluate Travel Policies

Recent events related to COVID-19 and their impact on corporate travel have revealed a compelling need and opportunity for organizations to change their policies.

As global lockdowns started in March 2020, Indian travellers were stuck in different countries. Indian government started the Vande Bharat Missions and brought back more than 1.4 million Indians stranded abroad due to coronavirus restrictions. In light of this, every business leader needs to reflect on how quickly and easily were they able to react in the midst of worldwide lockdowns. Were they already aware of all employees’ existing travel plans and prepared to provide counsel or reroute the employees to ensure their safety? Or, have the past few months been a scramble to address the company’s changing travel needs? For many, these unprecedented times have revealed the shortcomings and strengths in emergency preparation, requiring modifications to corporate travel policies for any business operating within the globalized economy. At the same time, we can anticipate the meaning of “safe travel” to evolve and include a heightened focus on sanitation and low-contact activities.

A recent SAP Concur Business Traveller 2020 survey highlighted the concern of employees when travelling for business. More than one-third of Indian business travellers (37 percent) prioritize their own health and safety as the most important factor when taking a trip as compared to only 12 percent who considered meeting business needs as the top priority.

While most corporate travel was on hold since COVID-19 outbreak, it is expected to slowly pick up the pace. Indian government has recently allowed the domestic airlines to operate at 60 percent of their capacity along with setting up air bubbles with 13 countries that allows international air travel for citizens under a reciprocal agreement between the specified nations. Until the situation changes further, this is an opportune time for organizations to make modifications to their travel policies, secure necessary leadership buy-in, and prepare for organization-wide communications surrounding changes.

Plan for Every Scenario

While few could have anticipated the gravity of this year’s events, many wish they had. According to a March 2020 lightning poll by the Global Business Travel Association, 70 percent of those surveyed reported their company had instituted new policies pertaining to travel approval due to COVID-19. Outlining clear, straightforward guidelines in the travel policy for best- and worst-case scenarios – and everything else in between – can go a long way toward helping the organization not only prepare for anything but be in a position to quickly and effectively communicate to employees, giving them real-time reassurance.

One proactive measure is to develop tactical plans that can be activated in times of emergency, such as natural disasters, political uprisings, and other scenarios where business travellers’ safety and well-being could be put in jeopardy. These plans, as part of a comprehensive travel policy, also should be communicated broadly to the employees to ensure confidence, preparation, and alignment.

Don’t stop there. Consider decision-making and escalation protocols when it comes to different scenarios: If the scenario is less serious, what steps should be taken? Who will be responsible for making travel arrangements during a crisis? If you are unable to change an employee’s travel plans immediately, what actions should they take to stay safe? What expenses will be covered by the company, and what might require extra approvals? Does the CFO need to approve extraordinary costs during an unusual situation? Asking, addressing, and communicating the answers even for scenarios that seem unlikely, can help minimize the confusion and frustration within an organization when situations do arise.

Determine Who, When, Where, and Why

Organizations should be specific about the recommendations within their policies, according to each situation – who is permitted to travel during a particular scenario, where are they permitted to travel, and when along with the reasons for their travel.

Addressing these questions in advance can help prevent any confusion related to business travel policies during uncertain times. In the SAP Concur survey, majority of Indian business travellers voiced their expectations from their companies to implement critical measures like mandatory personal health screenings for travelling employees and limited travel to most business-critical trips. Carefully detailing out all the rules would create a precedent, should someone challenge the organization’s travel policy during times of emergency.

Foster a Culture of Communication

Most of our customers have cited regular, ongoing communication about their travel policy, including changes, has been an essential component in ensuring that employees adhere to rules and guidelines. Frequent communication has helped decrease employee uncertainty and unexpected travel expenses that can disrupt budgets.

It is equally important that employees transparently communicate with the company about their upcoming travel plans and use company-approved booking tools. As recent events have underscored, knowing details such as where the employees are going, when, and where they are staying can significantly impact the company’s ability to act quickly during a state of emergency.

Adopting technology and new-age digital solutions can further enable a company to pinpoint their employees’ location anywhere in the world and initiate contact with them to render immediate assistance when the need arises.

Make It Easy

There are times for complexity and detail – like developing emergency scenario plans – and there are times for simplicity and brevity. Employee resources for booking business travel and managing expenses should always fall into the latter group.

Technology-driven resources such as digital tools, automated services, and mobile devices and applications have proven especially helpful and are vital to facilitating this new way of working.

Similarly, these helpful resources also can benefit business travelers, allowing them to book, change, and manage accommodations while on the go, and even submit their travel expenses away from the office. As per the Finance in the New World of Work 2020 study by SAP Concur, 79 percent Indian respondents strongly connected the overall work satisfaction with finance and admin processes like expense claims and travel management. 49 percent Indian respondents also said that their company’s business travel management system can be improved by providing the ability to manage the business travels via phone, online, or even through a mobile app.

Even in the SAP Concur Business Traveller 2020 survey, 36 percent Indian business travellers said that mobile check-in would be one of the most important features for an App. Hence, companies should consider incorporating technology – especially mobile-friendly options – for a more future-proof corporate travel policy that addresses a spectrum of employee needs and preferences.

Think About Employee Values and Global Impact

While sustainable travel may not make the top of your priority list today, living and working sustainably is of key importance to Millennial and Gen Z workers, which will make up 59 percent of the global workforce this year. These uncertain times have prompted many to reflect on and reconsider what matters most, and business values should be no exception.

Are there more sustainable travel methods or hotel chain initiatives that your organization can support moving forward? Perhaps it is worth encouraging colleagues to fly coach instead of business class, or driving shorter distances instead of flying, to reduce their carbon footprint? Are there other employee concerns or values that should be taken into account in light of recent events? This is a unique opportunity to consider how corporate travel policies can drive positive business, social, and environmental impact – not just serve as a static set of rules to follow.


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