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COVID-19: Business Travel, being prepared and worst case scenarios

Scott Sunderman, Head of Assistance - Collinson

We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment, as people around the globe feel the reverberating effects of the coronavirus. The COVID-19 outbreak is causing companies of every size and complexity to look anew at how they safeguard the wellbeing of their employees – in the office, at home, and while they travel.

Companies worldwide spend over US$1.3 trillion on business travel each year and business travellers in the US alone make more than 400 million trips per year. The massive scale of business travel puts COVID-19 into even sharper context, demonstrating why business travel can’t be overlooked as a key area of employee wellbeing. Travelling staff face a number of unique risks, ranging from lost luggage to a major medical emergency; and unfortunately, over half of business travellers don’t fully understand what assistance is available.

What’s the right strategy to manage risk and protect staff wellbeing during business travel? Are the correct policies and assistance products in place, do employees understand them, do they know how to use them and will these stand up to scrutiny if a major incident occurs? Here are seven key questions that businesses should be addressing.

Are you prepared for the worst-case scenario?

When business operations depend on international travel, it’s critical to look beyond day-to-day concerns around booking procedures and ticket reimbursement. What if an emergency is unfolding in real-time, or an employee has already travelled to a country where borders are closing? A mature policy will offer comprehensive advice and support, including global medical and security assistance. Importantly, it will also define essential travel and high-risk destinations, to help protect staff who are travelling to or working in remote, challenging circumstances where a “worst-case scenario” could be more likely to occur.

Do you have a single point of contact for fast, expert advice?

In a fast-moving crisis situation, you don’t want travelling staff to be flipping through lists of phone numbers, trying to figure out who to call. The strongest travel risk management strategy centres around a single point of contact where anyone in the business – travelling or otherwise – can quickly get in touch with an expert and find the relevant medical and security information they need. Having access to comprehensive, reactive advice is vital when government advisories – while valuable – cannot address the specific concerns of a given business or its travelling employees. With a single source of dedicated assistance and accurate, timely information, companies can better anticipate what will happen next and make the best choice.

Is compliance being communicated in the right way?

Compliance for business travel can be a tricky issue. Employees want to focus on the job they were hired to do, not spend an afternoon reading through corporate travel policies and procedures. Luckily, there are ways to enhance travel policies and make it easier and more effective to ensure compliance. The first step is proactive communications that show employees how compliance is ultimately about protecting their wellbeing. A strong travel policy under a robust risk management strategy will enable travel tracking, support and communication, while making both the obligations and the benefits clear to employees.

Is your strategy both holistic and tailored to your needs?

Every business is different, so in looking at the business holistically, consultants can determine solutions to address specific risks for any given business and advise on any specialist requirements. This might cover a medical emergency response plan for companies that operate in remote environments; scenario-based crisis and evacuation planning; training on security and risk mitigation for travellers or HR personnel; and medical screening to ensure travellers are fit and protected. Pandemic planning is another part of the bespoke risk consultancy process, and will no doubt become a key focus for many companies after this year’s outbreak.

How is privacy balanced with essential protection?

A robust risk management strategy has the proper balance between protecting employees’ privacy and ensuring that they have essential protection. For example, employees have the right to not disclose chronic conditions, but knowing this information enables smarter decision-making – whether that’s who works from home during a pandemic, or who gets enhanced access to mental health resources while abroad. Employees should understand both their privacy rights and what they can gain by disclosing information about their physical and mental health, so they can make the best choice for themselves and their future wellbeing.

Are you adapting to the trends?

Managing risk is all about being responsive. This means acting with speed and agility in situations where everything is evolving fast, but also considering how to respond to long-term trends which are gradually changing how people travel for business. “Bleisure” travel, for example, is now a hot trend amongst corporate travellers who love the opportunity to tack on a week of leisure travel after the business is done. How can a company continue to protect their employees if they are still abroad but off the clock and potentially out-of-network? A risk management strategy must continually tackle these types of questions, in line with the evolution of business travel.

Are your employees actively engaged?

A robust travel risk management strategy gets employees actively involved, so that they understand what travel policies are in place, why these matter – and how to make use of the relevant services. Employees should feel confident that their wellbeing is being looked after, and empowered to take the right steps if they find themselves in an emergency. It’s likewise important that staff are encouraged to make use of any available perks that alleviate stress and improve traveller wellbeing. These so-called “soft” benefits play an essential role in creating a healthier workforce and engaging employees early on, so that if a major incident occurs, staff feel protected and know who to call.

As companies consider the future of business travel in light of COVID-19, travel risk management will only become a more pressing issue. From the biggest multi-national corporates to burgeoning SMEs and mid-market companies, businesses of every size are realising that having the right framework in place to manage risk is critical – and communicating to employees what services they’ve invested in in this regard is essential; both for employee wellbeing, and the company’s bottom line.

While travel restrictions remain, now is the time to get the right policies, processes and technology in place – so that once restrictions are lifted, employees will feel confident and safeguarded by their companies when travelling.

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