What will be the new normal coming out of the pandemic? This crucial question will drive important business decisions at every level of every organization. Where people will work; whether or not to require masks, certificates of vaccination, or frequent COVID-19 tests in the office; how to determine if and when travel is safe—these things can’t be ignored. At the same time, they can be a major distraction.
I’d suggest three areas of focus that can put things into perspective as leaders evaluate their plans for a post-pandemic reality. Given the uncertainty we’re all feeling, navigating these three issues is crucial for companies to thrive. As leaders make decisions around policies and procedures for their company, they should ask “How does this impact employee experience, creative collaboration, and customer connection?”
Like so many concepts in business, the term “employee experience” has been reduced to an acronym—EX. In this case, it’s appropriate; if you don’t get EX right, you may end up with EX-employees.
The SAP Concur Thought Leadership Fusion panel Creating a New Playbook for Businesses explored this topic with a focus on the need to rewrite the rules of business—from shifts in budget priorities to more seamless policies and flexibility for employees to help navigate this new era of travel and spend management.
Luna Ness, global marketing manager at TCG Consulting, discussed the importance of the employee journey and experience.
“We’re seeing more and more companies focus their attention on the employee experience and the employee journey, specifically to meetings requiring travel, payments, and expense programs. An example that companies are taking into consideration is employees booking trips,” said Ness. “So, the approval process for that trip—how do they book the trip? How are they going to pay for that trip, their experience, and accommodation when they arrive at the hotel, the meeting space, and location? And then, when they get back, how are they going to expense that trip, and how are they going to get reimbursed? Those are some of the stages in the journey that companies need to assess…employees want simplified processes, easier access to information, and greater employee benefits and perks when they use employee channels.”
Creating a supportive, empowering EX is key to keeping talent on board, attracting new talent, and maintaining company culture. Employees who have been working from home have experienced an unprecedented level of autonomy—and by and large, they’ve delivered, and then some. The most exhaustive study of remote work, conducted by Stanford University involving roughly 20,000 employees over nine months, showed a productivity increase of 13 percent. Numerous, more recent studies report even higher increases.
Whether employees face a hybrid work model or a return to the office, many are re-evaluating their options and even actively considering quitting. According to a Yahoo Finance/Harris Poll survey, 37 percent of workers are either thinking of leaving their current jobs or are already preparing to make the move. And securing a new job before leaving the current one is no longer a requirement—a recent McKinsey report found that of those surveyed who had quit in the past six months, 36 percent did so without a new job lined up.
Losing anywhere near 37 percent of a talented, trained workforce would be disastrous for any company. Fortunately, there are plenty of actions and resources to avoid this, and SAP Concur solutions can play a significant role. We are dedicated to removing friction and hassle from day-to-day business life. We’re particularly focused on managing travel and expense (T&E) processes. Ultimately, our goal is to automate them to the point where they’re invisible, so that the employee effort required to get reimbursed for their expenses is zero. If companies want to improve their EX, this kind of thinking needs to be applied to all business processes.
When employees work together in an office, collaboration happens in ways that simply can’t take place on a video call. An example of just how important casual collaboration can be is the chance meeting of Prof. Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman at a photocopier in 1997, which led to the foundational mRNA science behind today’s COVID-19 vaccinations.
While an extreme example, important breakthroughs do occur through casual encounters on a regular basis. Employees certainly recognize the value of face-to-face interactions. In one study, 75 percent of workers cited collaboration as having suffered the most while working at home. Companies need to facilitate personal contact, both to boost creative collaboration and improve EX.
In some cases, this may mean revisiting the T&E budget to enable “mini-conferences” among employees who are geographically dispersed. It is nearly impossible to establish or maintain culture in a remote environment—in this new era, internal travel should be considered as an indispensable tool to instill and maintain company culture.
“This is a new expense normal. We have to be prepared to deal with the unexpected,” noted Tom Lavin, chief controlling officer of marketing solutions at SAP. “Companies have to be agile in their budgeting practices, especially as it relates to travel and expense. We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable aspect of not knowing what we don’t know—we don’t have a crystal ball. The resurgence of the COVID-19 variant shows that you cannot expect to predict the future.”
The third focus area is customer connection, which may involve incorporating more frequent business travel. It is easier to build trust and have frank or delicate conversations in person than virtually. Lorraine Cohen, tax partner at Deloitte, noted, “Because people are moving to different locations and changing their primary work location, there’s going to be a need to meet with your teams or customers that may not be near where you are. I actually think that travel is going to increase as we get further along.”
Simultaneously, the value of such in-person interactions is difficult to quantify. Data from a large number of customers via surveys or other formal methods can help spot trends very well. On the other hand, a one-to-one conversation in an informal setting can lead to insights no survey would ever reveal—or perhaps a deal that otherwise wouldn’t have closed.
When many companies are feeling the need to reconnect with customers in person, the lingering effects of the pandemic have added two new dimensions to T&E budget and policy considerations. First is safety. In addition to deciding whether a particular business trip is cost justified, companies have a legal responsibility to ensure that the trip in question is safe. Beyond that, there is the issue of travel restrictions. Many European countries, for example, now require a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination before they’ll admit U.S. citizens, and some are imposing quarantines. Adding to these challenges is the fact that the rules are constantly changing.
These factors point to a need for new levels of flexibility in travel planning. All stakeholders need to be involved, and the intangible results of business trips should not be ignored. Tom Lavin echoes this sentiment: “If travel rebounds by X percent, or Y amount of spend, how would you plan that? How would you allow your workforce to go travel, and how would you be able to fund that? We have to be very comfortable with that unexpected reality, make sure we have scenarios available, and try to tap into as much real-time data as possible so that it can influence those decisions and give you the ability to course correct.”
On the topic of events, Lavin continued: “I think we’ll see some sustained increase in virtual events…both for customer engagement as well as internal meetings. That won’t go away. We’ll see the benefits of [a hybrid model], having some events held virtually continue, but you cannot sacrifice the really phenomenal benefits of human interactions—it’ll have to be a careful balance.”
The Human Touch
Looking at these three focus areas—employee experience, creative collaboration, and customer connection—there’s a common theme: the human touch. While we are still amid the pandemic, and caution is as important as ever, it’s also time we start reconnecting.