New normal for travel: Putting people first
The decision to travel for business today involves many competing demands, from assessing whether to do business by Zoom instead of in person to weighing the desire to travel against the desire for safety.
Now, “travel is so much more than boarding the plane,” said Heather Allegrina, Global Travel Manager for workflow software company ServiceNow.
Allegrina and Crystal Schoenhals, Manager for Ernst and Young, shared their expertise about how business travel has changed during a recent session at SAP Concur Fusion, Taking a People-First Approach to Improve Your Travel Program. The session, now available on demand along with numerous others, was moderated by my SAP Concur colleagues Céline Roure, Solutions Consultant, and Natalia Navarro, Senior Value Experience Consultant.
Topics of conversation included how companies are assessing the value of trips, the changing roles travel managers play today, how sustainability fits into the conversation, and how businesses and other organizations must keep the concerns and values of employees for flexible and safe travel front and center – or face the consequences.
Cutting across all the topics was the realization change is the new normal. One example was the difference between this July, when travel revved up, and August, when it dropped as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surged. As Allegrina observed, “We’ll just continue to ride the wave.”
“The constant theme across all of our client base is really the only constant in all of this is change,” Schoenhals said.
Assessing the value of a trip
Cost and efficiency were long the main factors in deciding a business trip’s worth. Employees and their clients like doing business face to face and still want to – with 96% telling us they were willing to in a survey this year.
Now more questions are being asked and factors considered. “Before it was just go in and book your trip because your client said, ‘I want you to be here,’” Schoenhals noted. “Now it’s an active conversation, an active thought process.’”
One big factor, of course, is that more of us have grown accustomed to using Zoom or Microsoft Teams or other video platforms to do our work – from wherever. And if one does travel, can it be a one-day trip instead of a multiday one and what are the health risks of going to that location? Could an employee drive instead of fly because it feels more secure? Can they stay in this hotel vs. the company’s preferred one, because it seems more vigilant about health matters?
“The biggest challenge and the biggest change in this environment has been … less of a focus on how much does the trip cost and more of a focus on, is the travel safe, is there an ROI?” Allegrina said.
Providing data and access to other resources helps. The CDC and other agencies have updated information on risks and requirements in certain destinations. Solutions such as Concur Travel & Expense deliver the ability to track costs or institute pretrip approvals that trigger discussions about trip worthiness and safety. The SAP Concur mobile app and TripIt® can deliver pretrip and on-the-ground information about risks and vaccine and testing requirements, as well as notifications of changes along the way. All add up to this: Information is vital at every step.
“When you’re measuring the value of a trip, we’ve really empowered our individual business owners to do that,” Allegrina said. “The business owner, the sales team, the marketing team, they know what they need out of their trips. … We give them that information and trust that they’re going to make that right decision.”
Travel managers’ roles
Our survey of over 700 travel managers found 99% thought their job would be more difficult in the year ahead. A part of the challenge is considering factors they never had to before. Another is collaborating with parts of their organizations they rarely did before, bringing both opportunities and a heightened profile.
ServiceNow’s Allegrina interacts regularly with benefits and HR, which wasn’t the case before, and the travel department meets weekly with representatives of the benefits, facilities, and safety and security departments. Each week they go over such items as which offices are open or closed and where people are traveling, and then assess whether policies need adjustment. They make recommendations to senior management.
“This is the new mode of doing business,” Allegrina said.
Sustainability is an increasing priority for employees and the companies they work for, SAP Concur research has shown. That has only increased as the pandemic brought about a major rethink of what businesses do, how they do it, and the environmental impact. Travel, of course, is a major contributor to emissions, so it’s part of the discussion.
The majority of Ernst and Young clients – over 90% – have sustainability targets, and travel departments are contributing to the measuring and assessments. Organizations are taking a close look at – and often choosing – vendors based on their environmental impact. Workers weigh in as well.
“Even employees are making the push upward to say, ‘What are you doing about the environment, what are you doing about the sustainability and the contribution from this company to the world?’’ Schoenhals said.
Flexibility and the costs of not putting people first
A key element in a people-first approach is flexibility: for flights, for hotels, for whether an employee must travel if they don’t feel safe. Another key factor is ensuring communication is two-way: providing travelers the counsel and information to decide if and how to venture out, and listening to their concerns before, during, and after they do.
“Through the end of the year, we have a work of choice philosophy that is overriding anything,” Allegrina said. “If you are not comfortable going into the office, not comfortable traveling, you do not have to, no questions asked,” Allegrina said.
ServiceNow has instituted a pretrip workflow that spurs conversations with employees about their comfort with travel, along with helping weigh the need for the trip. It has also rolled out a microsite with links and information such as what’s required to get on a plane and whether a hotel’s restaurant is open or has limited hours. They’ve used their SAP Concur site to provide notes and prompts to deliver information to travelers and connect them to resources.
If you open and maintain those lines of communication, “it will start resonating with your employee base.” Schoenhals said.
Just as the pandemic has shown that, mostly, people can work anywhere, the current environment means employees may choose to go elsewhere. A recent SAP Concur survey found that 89% want changes to travel policies to prioritize health and safety, and 20% would look for a different position if their company didn’t accommodate that desire.
“The data speaks for itself. You’re going to lose great candidates, great employees, if you don’t offer that flexibility. And that’s just the bottom line,” Schoenhals said.
Read the SAP Concur and EY whitepaper The Re-emergence of Business Travel: Where Are We Going Next?