Travel Policy and the New Role of HR
[Editor’s note: Michelle Denman was a panelist during Deem’s webinar, Engage: Reclaiming Travel, held online May 28, 2020. Her article is a reflection on the conversation had with panelists and the audience during the webinar.]
Recently, I participated in an Engage webinar hosted by Deem to discuss how businesses are reclaiming travel as the pandemic has progressed. During the ensuing discussion, I realized how much HR’s role around employee travel was changing. Shortly after the webinar, in a meeting with my colleagues on our executive team, one of them looked to me and said, “When are we updating our travel policy?” It took me aback for a moment as, in the past, HR was almost never involved in travel decisions unless someone was routinely violating T&E policies or got into trouble while they were traveling. Occasionally, we’d get brought in to discuss travel burnout and retention of road warriors, but that was usually reactive and rarely at the policy-making level.
COVID-19 has clearly changed all that and brought employee wellness to the forefront of everyone’s thinking around business travel. As we think about our employees starting to travel again, and what policy and process changes we might make, we need to revisit the purpose of business travel to begin with and what outcomes we hope to achieve when we put an employee on a plane.
Why is business travel needed?
When it comes down to it, regardless of the function, employees travel for one reason: to build relationships. Both intuition and research indicate there is no better way to do this than face to face and this is why I’m confident that business travel will return sooner rather than later. Whether it’s a sales rep meeting with a new prospect, a consultant working with a customer, or a manager meeting with their team, they all have the same goal of building trust and relationships.
“In-person meetings provide a sense of intimacy, connection and empathy that is difficult to replicate via video,” said Paul Axtell, corporate trainer and author of the book, Meetings Matter. “It’s much easier to ask for attentive listening and presence, which creates the psychological safety that people need to sense in order to engage and participate fully.”
That’s also why business travel tends to include meetings that happen over meals or other out-of-the-office activities that support relationship building and getting to know each other on a personal level. Once those relationships are built and a foundation for trust is established, it’s easier to get tasks accomplished and build on the relationship remotely.
HR’s role in creating travel policy
Our discussion during the Engage webinar led to conversation around which business functions should be involved in and responsible for travel policy. Business leaders are clearly sold on the value that face to face interaction can bring, which is why they’ve invested so heavily in business travel in the past. But, they’ve also sought to balance the benefits of face-to-face meetings with the cost of travel. With ROI as the primary driver in determining whether or not an employee would travel for business, the majority of travel-related policies and practices have generally been developed by finance and, in some cases, procurement functions.
The advent of COVID-19, however, changed all of this. Companies slowed down or stopped travel altogether due to the risk to travelers’ health rather than concern about costs, sometimes at even greater cost due to cancellation fees and lost productivity. So now, instead of – or perhaps, in addition to – focusing on the cost/benefit, we are trying to balance the positive outcomes of business travel with the potential risk to employee health. This increased risk and focus on employee well being has led to an invitation for HR professionals to join the discussion on when and how and under what circumstances an employee should travel.
I’ve been collaborating with current and former colleagues quite a bit over the last couple of months, as we all try to figure out how to address COVID-19 in the workplace. The subject of employee travel almost always comes up. As we are currently focused on getting back into the office and ensuring our workplaces minimize the risk of exposure, how do we do the same for road warriors who may need to get back on a plane? Should we avoid travel completely? Avoid certain locations? Limit the number of trips or situations in which an employee should travel?
How do we select travel partners we can trust to take proper precautions with sanitation and social distancing? How do we give our travelers a sense of confidence and control? What do we do if an employee doesn’t feel comfortable traveling? In grappling with these questions as we reconsider our own travel policies the formula I keep coming back to is: Consideration, Communication, and Collaboration.
Travel policy guidelines – an HR perspective
Consideration of an employee’s unique personal situation and their role within the company is critical in answering those questions fairly. If an employee is in a sales position at what point in the cycle does traveling to meet their customer make the most sense? In a different role, maybe deferring travel makes better sense.
In their personal life, do they have family members at home who are in high risk groups or are they in one themselves? How comfortable do they feel about traveling at the moment? Do they have school age children at home and are they in a location where childcare options are not yet open? Keeping policies flexible enough to allow for consideration of an employee’s unique personal situation will inspire confidence and appreciation in our employees.
Collaboration with employees and customers is also critical in finding the best solution to meet travel needs. Customers and prospects likely have their own concerns or guidelines around travel. Working together to determine how and when to get together for face-to-face meetings and deciding which meetings can be done virtually will become the new norm.
In arranging employee meetings, perhaps there is a particular location that is safer at the moment, allows better social distancing, or is driving distance that would satisfy all parties involved. Collaboration between employees and managers on when, who, and how people travel is going to be imperative because no travel policy can take into account all possible circumstances in this ever changing and evolving situation.
Communication is the lynchpin for making everything about work, well – work. And business travel is no different. We need to ensure travelers know about the risks associated with the areas to which they are traveling, the precautions travel vendors are taking to ensure their safety, and requirements they are subject to like wearing masks and personal protective measures. Also, in the event an area becomes unsafe, how will we advise travelers of the changing situation? Transparent and frequent communication between travelers, HR professionals, leaders, and travel managers is the only way to navigate well this new, changing landscape.
Fortunately, solving business problems related to people is what HR professionals do. Our expertise in communication, collaboration, employee engagement, and wellness will provide tremendous value as companies reassess their employee travel policies and processes. One of my colleagues suggested we are becoming the Chief Wellness Officers of our organizations as we grapple with workplace safety in the time of coronavirus. How and when we get back to traveling is just one more element to consider in our duty of care to our employees.