Employees have more influence than ever over workplace policies and programs. How will travel managers balance the new dynamic—and what tools and strategies will engage travelers?
The Covid-19 pandemic has baked more scrutiny but also more purpose into the decision to travel for business. The shift to remote work, which catapulted brick-and-mortar offices into the future in a too-quick-for-comfort scramble, has now become the preferred environment for a majority of the knowledge-based workforce, according to professional network Blind. Most only want to visit the office intermittently to power up their work relationships and dive deeper into collaboration projects.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and stay up to date
According to EY, only 20 percent have interest in returning to the office full time. Indeed, no matter where you look, worker surveys show overwhelming preferences for flexible work arrangements and employees demanding to work more on their own terms.
The focus on how we work and not where we work has enveloped business travel as well. Is it necessary to travel to meet that client? Is there a return on investment for that conference or trade show? Can in-person training now be reasonably achieved through video-enabled online learning? On the flip side, however, do we need to enable more internal meetings so our now-geographically-distributed workforce can come together to engage with and understand our unique corporate culture?
All these questions put a laser focus on the fact that travel in the context of business is a means to an end—a tool or an enabler that allows businesses to get the job done. Now, however, the decision to hop on a plane may not be as straightforward. There are viable alternatives available at our fingertips and plenty of reasons to stay put: traveler health concerns, productivity, sustainability, work-life balance, mental well-being. They all play a part in the decision-making process, and in many cases are deeply personal to the employee. So how does this affect travel management?
What Travelers Want
Before we look at what employee travelers want, let’s look at what they have: power.
EY’s 2021 Work Reimagined survey showed that 54 percent of workers would quit their jobs if the company was not flexible in meeting their personal or work-life needs. Caught in a lingering pandemic environment and swept into a social-industrial phenomenon recently dubbed “The Great Resignation,” companies have shown more deference to worker preferences and needs, and travel programs are no exception.
“Traveler preferences have definitely taken precedence over compliance with our preferred suppliers,” said Yukari Tortorich, global travel VP for Discovery, where employees have returned to some levels of travel and travel requests are increasing on the daily. Speaking on a panel at the BTN Group’s recent Innovate conference in New York, the veteran travel manager said she was considering ways to ease travelers back into the idea of stricter supplier compliance as travel returns in earnest for the mass media company. For now, travelers still have latitude to book with suppliers that meet sometimes intangible personal preferences.
Tortorich isn’t alone in this challenge to re-establish a more traditional travel guidance for Discovery’s program. In a June 2021 SAP Concur survey of travel managers, 99 percent of 700 respondents said their jobs would be harder over the next 12 months. Not only are they grappling with communicating revised travel policies and dealing with new border regulations and health concerns, they also will be faced with changing traveler expectations of what corporate travel programs should provide.
A June SAP Concur survey of more than 3,000 business travelers found the vast majority—72 percent—of managed business travelers expected their travel programs now to offer them flexibility to choose alternative airlines, hotels and transportation providers to fit their needs. For significant percentages of respondents, that meant the latitude to book direct flights (52 percent), four- and five-star hotels (39 percent) or premium cabin seating on airlines (also 39 percent).