Travel pillow? Check. Business cards? Check. Up-to-date policies and procedures? Maybe not.
After effectively vanishing amid the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, business travel is coming back. Survey data reported by Deloitte show organizations expect to ratchet up their corporate travel expenses to 55% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. The trend is expected to continue, reaching 68% of pre-pandemic spend by the end of 2023.
Workers are once again hitting the road. Are your travel policies falling behind?
COVID’s Disruption of Corporate Travel
It was less than two years ago, in early 2020, when organizations faced the all-hands-on-deck exercise of transforming their businesses to accommodate the realities of COVID-19. This meant a pivot to remote work for some and revamped workplace safety practices for others. What it didn’t mean in the vast majority of cases was business-as-usual for corporate travel.
As recently as June of last year, corporate travel spending was still only 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Deloitte. It wouldn’t be until August that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would approve the first COVID-19 vaccine for general use in people 16 and older, and millions of people had yet to receive a first dose.
Needless to say, it’s easy to imagine that corporate travel policy was a low priority for many policy writers. That’s not to say policy writers weren’t busy – in NAVEX’s 2022 Risk and Compliance Benchmark Report, only three percent of R&C professionals said COVID was “very disruptive” to policy and procedure management. What’s more, 43% said it was “minimally disruptive.”
Policy writers have spent years ensuring that their organization had rules in place to operate amid the disruption of the pandemic. The climate of risk is changing again – only this time, signs point to something more “normal,” at least regarding business travel.
Understanding the Employee’s Point of View
Imagine an employee that traveled frequently for work before the pandemic. There was no doubt a time when the employee could fill out an expense report with their eyes closed. What about today?
“Hope” is not an R&C strategy. Organizations will need to confirm that even seasoned employee travelers are up-to-date in their understanding of all travel policies. When employees travel, it’s important for the organization’s policies to travel with them.
Risk and compliance professionals should put themselves in the shoes of their organization’s traveling employees to anticipate the sort of practical questions they are likely to ask, such as:
- How do I submit an expense report? Do we have a new system in place? Have my login credentials changed?
- Where is our travel and expenses (T&E) policy? Can I access it remotely?
- Is our T&E policy up to date?
- Is my corporate card still active?
These are just a small sliver of the questions employees are likely to ask as they reengage in corporate travel. And don’t forget that some employees may be traveling for the first time at all since the pandemic began, meaning they may have fundamental questions about things like mask mandates and proof-of-vaccination.
Policy Review and Training
There are two tranches of work necessary to ensure organizational policies are ready to support the return of corporate travel: policy review and training.
First, risk and compliance professionals must review every conceivable policy related to employee travel. This should be relatively straightforward for well-run compliance programs that possess a standard review interval, often 12 months. Yet given the pandemic’s disruption of normal priorities, standard protocols may benefit from a second look.
In addition to policies that directly address legal or regulatory requirements, some of the most important travel policies define expectations of employee conduct. These can be subjective, but are especially critical. Traveling employees serve as ambassadors for their organization, often in a position to influence high-stakes business relationships during off-work hours. Behaviors such as the giving or receiving of gifts and the reasonable consumption of alcohol are among those that organizations should review and define as part of expected travel conduct.
Apart from public health requirements, organizations may also consider discretionary corporate travel requirements related to COVID-19. These could include an expectation for mask-wearing during corporate travel or, as some organizations have decided, restrictions on corporate travel for unvaccinated employees.
Any corporate policy can broadcast a set of values that influence the organization’s standing in the marketplace, and policies around employee health and COVID-19 are an excellent example given the politically charged nature of the topic in the United States. This highlights how important it is for the right senior leaders to have a say in the development and updating of any critical policy, and R&C leaders should use the renewal of travel rules as an opportunity to assess whether their review process and “meta policy” – their “policy on policies – could be better optimized. NAVEX’s most recent edition of The Definitive Guide to Policy & Procedure Management includes extensive guidance for how to govern the process and track contributions from multiple stakeholders.
Once employee travel policies are reviewed, the next step is training.
Firstly, the resumption of corporate travel may be worthy of a well-considered announcement strategy. One reason is external reputation, as resuming travel signals a sort of return to normalcy. Another is the potential disruption for employees that may have grown accustomed to conducting critical business meetings from a video feed in the convenience of a home office.
In many organizations, only a subset of employees will need to travel. This presents an opportunity to focus limited training resources on employees who need it most, though all employees should be advised where to look for any given policy.
All training should require the employee to attest to their understanding of relevant travel policies, and employees should be reminded of where to look if they have questions.
Ideally, risk and compliance professionals will be able to track employee attestation to travel policies, and even better, the activity of employees accessing the policy for review. Corporate travel bestows a large amount of trust on the employee as a representative of the organization, and if the employee does not meet the standards set out in the policy, attestation and access tracking provides a level of accountability.
Are Your Policies Ready to Fly?
R&C professionals at organizations that are resuming corporate travel should ensure their policies and procedures are updated and up to the task. Policies will require updating, and employees will require training. It may have been years since employees last traveled at all, and R&C can lay the foundation to ensure the process occurs smoothly.
For more information about policy and procedure management, download the latest edition of the NAVEX Definitive Guide to Policy and Procedure Management.