Return to Office: Updating Your Business Travel Policy

Consider these tips when updating your employee travel policy with COVID in mind.

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Return to Office: Updating Your Business Travel Policy

Here's what you need to know:

  • Now is an excellent time to update your business travel policy
  • Consider what constitutes a need to travel for work these days
  • Any effective business travel policy needs to consider the increase in “bleisure” travel
  • Consider any holes in the policy when it comes to liability, COVID precautions, and financial constraints
  • Be flexible and reimburse employees for new travel necessities and communicate the new policy

As workers head back into offices, work as we used to know it is slowly but surely picking back up. For many companies and workers across the country, this means traveling for work again after a hiatus that’s lasted years.

While we’re returning to the activities we used to do before COVID, the pandemic has changed things permanently. Business travel will never be exactly the same as it was before. Keeping your employees safe has to be a top priority, even while traveling. Plus, most companies’ rules around business travel have changed significantly since the pandemic.

That’s why clearly outlining rules and expectations around business travel is a must. That’s also why now is an excellent time to update your business travel policy for the new normal we’re living in.

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How COVID changed business travel

In a matter of days many business travelers went from jet setting several days a week to doing all of their work on Zoom. COVID revealed the extent to which much of our work can be done remotely, both when it comes to in-office work and work travel.

In fact, the number of formerly frequent business travelers who say that they’ll never return to working from the road has jumped recently. In October 2021, 39% of these workers said they plan on leaving working out of a suitcase behind, but in February 2022 that number leapt to 42 % according to Morning Consult.

While the desire to do purely business travel has shrunk, the desire to blend business trips with leisure travel (known as “bleisure” travel) is up. The same Morning Consult survey found that 44% of workers plan to take a “bleisure” trip some time in the coming year.

However, at the same time, what COVID also revealed is the unique value of meeting face to face. It’s easier to see and understand someone as a whole person when you’re interacting with them in person or enjoying team-building activities together. Considering all of this, how do businesses big and small handle this new outlook on business travel?

What to consider when updating your business travel policy

The 1st thing you’ll want to consider when updating your business travel policy is the rules and expectations around business travel. Is there a higher bar to spend company money on travel now that we know how much can be done remotely? What meets that threshold? Is it internal team-building activities or are things like meeting important clients more essential?

You’ll have to think about what constitutes a need to travel for work these days. What kind of “proof” do they need to demonstrate the need and to who? Are team managers able to sign off on business travel or does it need the approval of higher-ups?

Any effective business travel policy will have to consider the increase in “bleisure” travel.

Naturally, you’ll have to think about how the destination impacts potential business travel. Is it important that the local COVID context is taken into consideration? What about when it comes to international travel? Will you expect employees to work from home for a while when they return out of an abundance of caution?

Next, any effective business travel policy will have to consider the increase in “bleisure” travel. Especially if you’re a small company that can’t compete with the benefits of larger corporations, one thing you can offer is flexibility. If someone is traveling for work, be flexible about letting them take a few days off around it so that they can combine it with a mini vacation.

One way to win here is by not being strict about how employees book their flights. If they want to book 1 flight to the business destination and the return to a nearby vacation spot, let them do it. That way they’re only responsible for their flight home and you have a happy employee as a result.

Tips for updating your business travel policy

There are a lot of unique elements to consider when updating your business travel policy. Hopefully, the questions posed above have helped you think through some of what applies to your small business.

Once you know what you need to hit on in your unique situation, there are a few elements that are pretty critical for most businesses’ travel policies. These include:

Reassessing what you had in place before

If you didn’t have a business travel policy before, this doesn’t apply to you. But if you did, the first step is to look at what’s already in place for both domestic and international travel.

Is money tighter and business travel needs to be more restricted than it was before?

What are the holes in your current policy in the COVID era? Work with your legal team or consult a legal expert to make sure your new policy will fill in any new or existing holes when it comes to liability for workers who travel.

This is also when you’ll want to look at any new or changed financial constraints. Is money tighter and, therefore, business travel needs to be more restricted than it was before?

Find a way to control for COVID exposure

Again, you should consult with a legal expert for the best advice. But it’s safe to assume that you should probably restrict or prohibit employees from traveling to high-risk exposure areas. This will have to line up with your budget, of course.

But any time that an employee can take a direct flight rather than layover somewhere, the chances for exposure are lower. Then, while they’re traveling for work, discourage them from going to high-risk places like busy restaurants, gyms, and tourist destinations.

Be flexible and reimburse employees for PPE and other new travel necessities

It used to be that booking travel as far in advance as possible was the way to go because it saved money. While that might still be true, COVID rates can still change on a dime. Even if it costs more, be flexible with booking timelines. Then, if your employees need PPE, at-home COVID tests, or the like in order to feel comfortable and be safe traveling, reimburse them for the costs.

Communicate the new company travel policy

Drafting up a new policy doesn’t make much of a difference if no one knows about it. Make sure that it’s disseminated in multiple ways through managers, meetings, memos, and other updates.

Finally, be prepared to revisit your business travel policy frequently. As you communicate your new policy, make sure that employees understand that things could change again. COVID is far from over. It’s best to keep revisiting your business travel policy on a quarterly basis to make sure you have all of your bases covered.

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