9 Dec 2021

At our recent People Summit Series event on ‘Global Mobility: A post-pandemic landscape’, one of the topics discussed was how organisations might change their approach to international business travel.

Dominic Holmes sums up the conclusions from the session.

A lengthy hiatus in overseas trips has compelled employers to find other ways to do business. Engaging with colleagues and contacts using video-conferencing platforms has become completely normal. For many months, there’s been no viable alternative.

But what will happen when employers are able to revert to frequent business travel? Will we see a return to pre-COVID levels of jet-setting, with some employees clocking up tens of thousands of air miles each year?

It seems unlikely.  It may sometimes be desirable or even commercially imperative to travel abroad on business. We might also reasonably expect an initial spike in work trips. Some will have missed the old way of doing things and want to catch up with contacts after such a long enforced separation. But my educated guess is that the novelty will soon wear thin .

It’s possible peer pressure will eventually tell. Once a major player starts sending executives around the world to meet clients and attend industry conferences, others will inevitably follow suit. Travelling across continents for face to face contact will be expected and shows real commitment, they will say. But I query that logic.

Here are six reasons why I believe many employers will significantly reduce their international travel commitments and focus on smarter ways of doing business across borders.

 1. Cost

It’s an expensive way of doing business. The money involved in sending a delegation to an international conference – flights, transfers, hotels, conference fees, subsistence expenses and entertaining clients – quickly starts to burn a hole in budgets and margins.

It also takes valuable people out of action for longer. It used to be common for employees to take a short-haul flight to attend a meeting in Europe. They would leave early and return late the same day, probably exhausted for the rest of the week and with a backlog of work to clear; not an efficient way to work.

2. Return on investment

Employers also need to consider the relative benefits of sending employees abroad for short periods. Frequently, it’s not worth the financial outlay. How many of those short-haul trips would have been just as fruitful if conducted remotely?

My own experience is that since adopting video-conferencing, I “see” clients and business contacts more regularly and our discussions have greater focus. We can have the same high-quality conversations as we might have had in person, but more often and from the convenience of our respective desks. I gain a better understanding of their immediate priorities and long-term objectives, more easily.

Employers may look at reallocating a significant proportion of travel and entertainment budgets to deliver better value. For example, some of the cost savings might be redirected towards enhancing their technology for conducting business virtually or improving customer experience more generally. This could represent a much better return on investment.

3. Employee safety

The ongoing risks from COVID-19 should cause employers to consider requests for business travel more carefully. They have a duty of care to employees to provide a safe working environment, which extends to all aspects of an employee’s role.

It would be wise to conduct a risk assessment before sanctioning any travel abroad. This should consider (amongst other things) the infection and transmission levels in the proposed destination, the employee’s own circumstances and how the proposed itinerary can be arranged to minimise close contact.

Employers should also introduce or update a travel policy to include guidance for employees on how to conduct themselves whilst on overseas trips. They should be familiar with and respect air travel guidelines and local public health measures, to mitigate the risks to themselves and their colleagues.

4. Business risk

Any risk assessment should factor in wider business concerns. As we’ve seen recently with the emergence of the Omicron variant, the international travel landscape can change almost overnight.

It’s entirely possible an employee sent to an apparently safe destination will become stranded, either due to new local lockdown rules or because travel routes are shut down at short notice. Flights may need to be rebooked and the employee may have to quarantine or self-isolate, abroad or on return to the UK. This has financial costs and may also hinder a valuable employee’s ability to perform their role.

5. Environment

Employers are placing great importance on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities. Customers and other stakeholders are demanding a greater commitment to reducing environmental impact and are increasingly alert to attempts at “greenwashing”. It’s no longer enough to plant some trees to offset the carbon footprint from ubiquitous air travel. There is a pressing need for us all to change our behaviours, as underlined by the COP26 summit.

We are now seeing some larger corporates including ESG objectives in remuneration structures for senior executives, reflecting the concerns and priorities of shareholders. Employers are increasingly conscious of their overall impact on the world, a topic recently explored in our Zebra Project event on People, Planet and Profit.

6. Employee voice

Travel demands placed on employees are likely to be a relevant factor in recruiting and retaining the best talent. The pandemic and its associated effects have given employees a stronger voice in how their work is organised. Many have become used to the benefits of working from home, with greater autonomy over their working time and more involvement in family life. For many, the opportunity to travel for work will have lost its lustre.

In addition, recent research by Trainline Partner Solutions in the UK suggests environmental concerns are motivating a significant proportion of employees to seek a more responsible approach to business travel.

The outcome

There will still be occasions when tech-enabled conversations cannot effectively replace face to face interaction. Employers will still require their employees to travel internationally, but I predict they will do so less frequently.

Responsible employers will make extensive efforts to ensure any proposed business trip is properly risk-assessed, has a clearly defined purpose and is carefully designed to extract maximum value from the time abroad.

In short, each travel request must be assessed on its merits and satisfy two important questions: is it safe and is it necessary?

Dominic Holmes is a Partner and Head of the Employment Team at international law firm Taylor Vinters. He writes and presents regularly on a range of strategic employment issues and has a particular interest in the future of work. 

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