Employee Safety Takes Centre Stage When Travel Resumes

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Pra-chid

COVID-19 has changed many aspects of business, including travel. But while there is real worry among today’s professionals to fly, the pandemic also offers an opportunity.

With some employees saying that they will go to the extent of quitting their positions or companies to avoid traveling — as indicated by a recent SAP Concur commissioned survey — the pressure is on Asia Pacific firms to rise above their traditional fixation on low travel costs to take better care of employees when they are out of town.

And the need for enterprises to move fast to assuage employees’ travel fears is real.

According to the SAP Concur survey, more than 2 in 5 respondents (42%) in APAC say their health and safety is their top priority while traveling for business. What’s most unnerving to business leaders, perhaps, is that this figure is nearly 2.5 times the number of respondents who regard business needs (17%) as their #1 priority.

Nearly half of APAC business travelers (48%) now say they experience the most stress during the trip, rather than before (21%) or after the trip (31%). When the same study was conducted in July-Aug last year, only 31% of APAC travelers cited the trip itself as the most stressful stage of travel.

Here are some steps firms can take to protect employees while on the road effectively:

1. Create a Master Plan

If they haven’t already done so, organizations need to draw up a master action plan for both in-office employees and travelers. In it, business managers must know how they will communicate with employees during an emergency, the frequency of communications, and the triggering factors. Also, organizations must ensure that they are practicing their plans through drills or scenarios, as well as continually reviewing, revising, and improving them.

2. Travel Only when Needed

In this new era of heightened health and safety risk, unnecessary travel should be cut out. Organizations can figure out their essential trips by taking reference from the concept of permissible travel, where governmental, corporate, and individual needs must be met before a trip can take place.

Governmental regulatory considerations would include questions like “Where does your government allow you to travel to?”, “Will quarantine be imposed at your destination or upon return?” and “What is the potential for disruption such as closing borders when you are at your destination?”.

Corporate level considerations would include questions like “What does your organization allow as a business trip?”, “What alternatives will be recommended (e.g., videoconference)?” and “How does corporate health insurance cover employees?”

When it comes to employees, the company should assess their appetite for travel, their risk of contracting COVID-19 overseas, and their probability of being separated from family members if they are prevented from leaving their destination, etc.

The reduced trips that come from meeting all three levels of needs will minimize employees’ exposure to the coronavirus, safeguarding their health -while giving them time back to spend on productive work or with their families.

As governmental, corporate, and personal constraints change over time, companies should use an automated trip planning tool to keep track of their employees’ travel plans effectively. Such tools typically will also be able to let firms impose some booking restrictions pre-trip to ensure employees’ safety. For instance, travelers may only be able to book from a list of approved airlines and hotels that can demonstrate that they undertake deep cleaning of their premises daily.

Imposing such restrictions will invariably drive up travel costs, but this is where travel technology can also come in to help companies make safe choices while still keeping costs down.

The survey also found that it’s important for organizations to train their staff prior to travel — employees increasingly expect guidance on how to stay safe when they travel. Some 96% of APAC business travelers say company training would be beneficial, especially training on how to protect their health and safety while traveling (61%) and how to maintain healthy habits while traveling (51%).

3. Maintain Constant Contact with Employees on the Road

Once the plane takes off, organizations that want to fulfill their duty of care effectively will need to be able to pinpoint their staff’s location no matter where they are in the world. They must also have the means to predict the risks in those locations and contact their staff to render immediate assistance when the need arises.

Organizations must also update their policies to ensure they are clear in providing guidance on medical expenses. Many organizations in APAC today are clear with small and big medical expenses incurred while out-stationed (visits to the GP are usually expensed, while insurance policies typically cover emergency evacuations through third parties like International SOS). It is the mid-sized bills that policies often omit mention of and, therefore, can be contentious. If a traveler contracts COVID-19 and needs to be admitted to the hospital, go through an urgent but routine procedure, and be put on a respirator for a few days, who will foot the bill that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars?

The Cost of Inertia? Revenue and Talent Loss

It is in the interest of organizations to implement the above measures because the study also shows that most respondents think the cutback in face-to-face meetings is impeding deal closure.

Some 60% of APAC business travelers had anticipated a lower number of deals or contracts signed without face-to-face meetings, while 50% of respondents expected declines in new business for the same reason.

The other consequence companies may face for not improving traveler safety is talent loss. About 51% of APAC business travelers say they would ask to limit travel if their company does not implement the measures they want, and 14% would look for a position that does not require travel, including 5% who would consider a position at a different company.

Without a doubt, companies have strong reasons to act now to improve their duty of care to traveling employees.

Dr. Carl Jones, vice president and head of travel for Asia Pacific & Greater China at SAP Concur, wrote this article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HR&DigitalTrends. Photo credit: iStockphoto/Pra-chid