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Learn a new language, take up baking, do a giant jigsaw puzzle … there’s a lot of commentary on social media about how furloughing gives people more time to try new things.

But one UK agency consortium is taking a different tack by training its members’ staff on new ways of booking corporate travel for when they return.

The Focus Travel Partnership, which has a network of 60 corporate travel agencies with a combined annual revenue of £1 billion ($1.2 billion), plans to retrain furloughed staff across 48 companies.

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Focus is taking advantage of UK law that allows an employer to train staff it has furloughed.

According to law firm Blake Morgan, “it is a key principle of the scheme that the individual cannot do any work for their employer whilst furloughed. They can take part in volunteer work or training as long as this does not provide services to, or generate revenue for, or on behalf of their employer.”

That guidance was clarified by Focus’ HR partner PS Human Resources. “The level of support they’ve given the partnership has been invaluable. Your smaller corporate travel agency might not necessarily have had access to all of that. It’s the value of being part of something that’s bigger than your own company,” Penston said.

Ticketing Training

Focus is teaming up with Atriis, a managed travel technology platform provider, to prepare staff on how to deal with the growing number of vouchers being issued by airlines.

“We threw it out on a conference call. This is what we plan on doing, but before we go ahead and construct the training program, is the appetite there?” Abby Penston, Focus’ CEO, told Skift.

“There was a resounding yes. It’s free training for them, why would you not want to do it? We openly promote Atriis within the partnership. We have an Atriis help desk, and have two people employed on that, while 45 agency members use it.

“My business solutions manager is working with them on the training. What does that look like from a technology point of view when it comes to managing those vouchers. That’s going to be a work in progress, but you’ve got to keep on it, keep looking at it.”

Not all agencies have welcomed the news that refunds may not be returned for some time, but as the crisis continues it seems likely they’ll be a common form of reimbursement from the airlines, with some now adding enhancements, to “sweeten the deal”.

As a result, consultants are expecting complex booking procedures.

However, Penston added: “Until we start getting people traveling, and servicing those bookings, that’s when we’ll probably see the lessons to be learned from that scenario. A lot of these things are concepts at the moment. We really need to see how they work when we turn to some level of normality.”

Growing Confidence

The extra downtime from furloughing is also on the radar for education providers.

“Government guidance actually encourages furloughed staff to undertake some kind of training,” said Karen McKenna, founder of e-learning platform Travilearn, which specializes in corporate travel management.

It is offering agencies discounts for furloughed staff. “We’re having discussions with agencies who are currently reviewing operations, budgets and investments for the next 12 months — and training budgets are also part of that review,” McKenna said.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but equally there is more space and time in which people can empower themselves with new skills and confidence,” added Mark Creighton, CEO of education platform Avado.

“We hope courses offer an opportunity to nurture new thinking and shift mindsets about how organizations could be led in a recovering economy that will have many new norms.”

Emotional Connection

Meanwhile, Focus’ Penston has urged companies to ensure they keep furloughed staff feeling motivated, as well as up to date on industry matters.

While its own furloughed staff are receiving training on Microsoft skills, Prince2 project management and even video editing, Focus, like many companies, organizes social events and quizzes, and sends gifts in the post, including sweets and cards saying “we’re still very much here, and you’re very much missed”, Penston added.

“It’s important people are keeping that level of connection with their staff on furlough. You don’t want people to be not just physically engaged from their role, but emotionally engaged either.”

American Express Global Business Travel, meanwhile, is using a dedicated app to keep the lines of communication open — in keeping with the law in the employee’s country.

“Our priority is wellbeing,” said Patti Huska, chief people officer. “We want to make sure they have all possible resources and support available.”

The optional app acts as a channel for information and resources, and can help build a sense of community, Huska added.

“The uptake has been fantastic. Thousands of people are sharing personal stories about their recent experiences. They have access to wellbeing resources, including options for counseling services for themselves and their families. We’re also including lists of volunteering opportunities and ways for people to learn new skills online.”

Relax the Regs

Elsewhere, one UK travel association is urging the government to relax furlough laws.

Abta says staff are needed back to tackle a growing backlog of queries from customers looking for assistance following the Foreign Office’s advice against all but essential travel abroad.

“These staff are particularly needed as companies pursue suppliers for refunds which can then be passed on to customers,” the association said.

Technically, a furloughed employee should not provide services or generate revenue.

Luke Petherbridge, head of public affairs, said the existing rules are overly restrictive.

“We urge ministers to relax the requirement which prevents furloughed staff from carrying out even non-revenue raising duties,” he said.

“Travel agents and tour operators are much needed right now, to assist with the disruption Covid-19 has caused travelers. Enabling these staff to go back to work will provide immediate benefits to customers whose holidays have been affected.”

CORRECTION: The original article stated Abby Penston was Focus’ managing director.

Photo Credit: Travelers move through a security checkpoint line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. David Goldman / Associated Press