There’s no question that business travel is a valuable activity for organizations across nearly every industry and company size. The most obvious benefit is financial, accruing in the form of new business deals, increased revenue, or a growing client base. But many other business travel benefits are equally powerful, if less easily measurable: the chance to foster better employee collaboration, the ability to conduct meetings in person, an increase in worker morale, and the opportunity to attract and retain great people.

Yet for all these upsides, companies engaging in business travel today face a growing set of challenges that threaten to undermine their hard-won gains. The policies and tools they use to help workers plan, book, and manage business trips are not always designed with employees in mind. Many policies prioritize monetary savings over employee satisfaction and convenience, leading to a situation that puts policy over people — often resulting in unexpected consequences.

Most executives would agree that saving money is an essential business travel policy goal. But when it is prioritized at the expense of the overall business traveler experience, it can often leave employees with the “short end” of the stick. Hitting the road for work is already stressful, whether that’s due to delayed flights, time away from home, unhealthy food, or disrupted sleep schedules. But when combined with policies that don’t take employee needs into account, these stressors can be aggravated, leading to frustrated employees, increasing absenteeism, decreases in productivity, and skyrocketing medical costs.

What do business travelers really want from their company travel policies? And have organizations done enough to understand potential upsides and downsides of their policy decisions on workers? We examine some of the consequences below, and then offer some strategies to help organizations build more people-first travel policies in the future.

The Employee Perspective

What do employees really want from their organizations while on the road? According to the results of 2018 research from TripActions and Skift, it’s all about having access to convenient tools, and timely support when there’s a problem. When business travelers were asked about their biggest work trip challenges in the TripActions survey, delayed or cancelled flights were the number one problem, mentioned by 55 percent of respondents. Another 46 percent mentioned missed flights, while another 34 percent mentioned the stress related to booking.

In spite of these stresses, many employees also believe that their company policies are making the hassles associated with these problems worse. In the same TripActions survey, when workers were asked about the biggest frustration with their existing company travel policy, more than 40 percent said it was the requirement that they book their trip via a company-provided tool. Meanwhile, another third of respondents said they did not have the flexibility to prioritize their personal travel preferences, the second most popular answer.

These results are further reinforced by the findings of 2018 research by Skift, which uncovered the growing desire among traveling workers for access to more consumer-friendly tools. More than 41 percent of respondents in Skift’s questionnaire said the tools provided by their company were “not as good” as what they use for their leisure trips, while a meager one percent said their company’s business travel tools were “better.” Adding to the urgency was the finding that more business travelers are seeking out “sharing economy” services like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber: nearly 69 percent of respondents said they sometimes use such platforms during business trips.

Each of these answers suggests travel policy decision makers may need to consider whether or not the current rules and toolset are adequately serving the needs of employees.

The Company Perspective

The ramifications of business travel policy decisions don’t just impact workers: they also play an important role in overall company success. Even though financial performance is often the most important metric used to determine ROI, today a growing number of companies are also considering the impact of business travel policy decisions on other areas like human resources and organizational culture.

It’s important for companies to understand that heavy business travel is not great for employee health. Harvard Business Review published a study earlier this year citing a Columbia University’s School of Public Health survey, which examined the impact of heavy business travel (14+nights away / month). Heavy business travelers had significantly higher body mass index on average, reported little to no exercise, and demonstrated clinical symptoms related to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence.

Further, increasing focus on “work-life balance” continues to be a growing area of concern.
Employees are thinking about how they can better prioritize healthy habits while traveling for work, and that means organizations must do so too as a result.

Perhaps the largest unintended consequence of poorly-designed business travel programs is the negative impact it has on an organization’s ability to hire and retain great workers. TripActions survey data show that 90 percent of employees view business travel as a “perk” of their job. Yet when travel policy is designed with the organization’s bottom line as the primary goal — at the expense of employee satisfaction — it can easily turn this popular perk into a pain. According to a 2017 article in Forbes, 31 percent of companies said they have received requests from employees for exemptions related to the travel policy. One should not assume that this number indicates “31 percent of employees want to misbehave,” rather there should be a shift in employer thinking: employees probably want to do the right thing, if given the right parameters, but the organization must to put more thought into what those parameters are. And employee needs should be front and center when making such determinations.

According to TripActions data, 50 percent of employees have “gone rogue” on their company travel policy, reducing companies’ visibility into spending habits while creating new problems related to areas like duty of care and compliance. Adoption rates are a key indicator that company policy and company people are aligned. Smart policies will reinforce the excitement and empowerment felt by employees when they travel for work, giving them more choice and flexibility, more support, and easier-to-use tools. Otherwise, these policies run the risk of creating the exact problem they were designed prevent: rampant business travel costs.

Creating a More People-First Travel Policy

By now, it should be clear that current business travel policies are not serving workers or their employers. But what strategies can organizations use to build more people-first policies? While there are a wide range of solutions that vary depending upon an organization’s size, budget, and business travel goals, here are three recommendations:

  1. Make the traveler’s preferences the focal point: Aim to make company booking tools more personalized, efficient, and easy for workers to use. Not only will this encourage greater policy compliance and boost travelers’ peace of mind, it will also increase convenience. This can help cut the time needed to book a typical work trip from as long as an hour down to mere minutes.
  2. Give travelers the power to choose: Provide travelers with plenty of inventory and allow them to select their preferences. Just like the consumer-friendly tools used by leisure travelers, employees expect access to a broader marketplace of choices and options like sharing economy services.
  3. Give travelers the support they need while on the road: Be proactive when something goes wrong (a flight delay, a sudden change). Notify travelers in advance about problems, and provide a range of contact options via mobile and chat that are friendly for on-the-go travelers. Last but not least, the human touch is critical: make sure a real-life agent is always standing by to help if plans change.

The process of creating a truly people-first business travel policy is a lot like a work trip itself –– not everything is going to go according to plan. But by staying flexible, designing a smart strategy, and adapting to conditions on the ground, today’s organizations can ensure this vital activity helps their company and employees grow and thrive in the future.

To learn more about how to create a people first travel policy, visit tripactions.com.

This content was created collaboratively by TripActions and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.