< PrevNext > Is Managing Non-Travel a New Frontier? Reluctance to travel will remain an issue, even after travel generally opens to employees. What travel policies or tools need to be in place to deal with this—and when does it become more an HR issue than a travel issue? By Chris Davis / November 11, 2021 / Contact Reporter Share As the CEO of a marketing and advertising agency, Rick Milenthal has seen the recent turbulence in business travel from all sides. A pre-pandemic frequent business traveler with a typical annual load of 100 nights on the road, Milenthal, the CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based agency The Shipyard, has adjusted to Covid-era business, even acquiring another agency in a process conducted entirely over remote conferencing.But as business travel ramps back up, Milenthal is finding that not all his employees are entirely comfortable hitting the road. “We have a lot of young people and a lot of young parents,” he said. “The discussion around a trip—who will come, who won’t, who will do video—is significant. It’s a journey.”That’s understandable, Milenthal said: More than 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, there remained enough U.S. spread of the virus to give employees pause. Plus, all his employees by now are accustomed to working remotely. “We’re very sensitive to what people feel is good for their safety,” Milenthal said. “I think every meeting for the next year and a half will be a hybrid meeting. So you’ll go, and there will be a number of people who will be on video, both from us and the people we’re visiting. I don’t see that changing.”These changes in Milenthal’s eyes are due to Covid-19, a move necessitated by concern about the virus. But as the pandemic wanes and vaccination levels increase, it’s far from clear that business travel volumes will reach 2019 levels anytime soon, and that’s not just due to Covid-19. A new generation of employees may be more cognizant of the environmental impact of their business travel, or may conclude that frequent business travel is not fully compatible with the work-life balance they want to achieve.Perhaps in the not-too-distant past, these concerns might be met with a suggestion that the employee find another job with levels of travel more to his or her liking. But the post-pandemic workplace may well be a new frontier, with employers, conscious of the need to retain talented employees, more willing to entertain such preferences to travel less, whether due to Covid, wellness, balance or sustainability. “I think it’s a new normal,” said Kelly Ellis, global practice area lead for traveler engagement for BCD Travel’s Advito travel consultancy. “I really feel like the culture has shifted, and so many people are finding they can be responsible working from home and get the job done without having to travel. There are still exceptions, but I think there will be a shift for sure.”Should such increased levels of business travel reluctance materialize, executives will have to decide how they will manage it. Should they consider a formal policy that governs the circumstances under which employees could decline travel, or should they instead adopt a more informal approach, weighing each entreaty on a case-by-case basis?Most companies remain occupied with immediate-term concerns of bringing employees back to their offices safely, with longer-term concerns just that. But the day is arriving when the notion of a post-Covid, travel-averse employee might be far less theoretical, and travel managers and senior executives alike would be well served to consider their approach now.Finding a BalanceTravel suppliers and research firms since the start of the pandemic have surveyed workers about their willingness and desire to travel for business and generally found that many travelers are willing and some are eager. The Global Business Travel Association, for example, for months has surveyed travel manager members about their travelers’ willingness to hit the road; generally three in four consider their travelers willing. But that’s not everybody. Many surveys have shown a minority, but not a tiny one, of business travelers aren’t eager to resume a life of airplanes and hotels. For some, that’s likely a reaction to Covid-19, a feeling that will ease as the pandemic does. But for others, it could be permanent, and they’re the ones who could drive some change to established travel philosophies.“I believe we’re going to be seeing more personalization in general, but also more choice on when do you actually physically travel,” said Tammy Krings, founder and CEO of travel management company ATG. “We’ve all learned that we can do business remotely, internally with our colleagues, but also with our customers. We’ve learned the value of being face to face with someone. And that is a high-value proposition, but it also comes at a high cost to an individual. So people who are now used to working from home, having the choice of a videoconference, might opt not to get on the road.”Covid-19 might have opened this door, but it’s not the only driver. Sustainability practices have increased in prominence throughout the world, and most large global companies have a public environmental strategy. Employees could well take their cues here and conclude that one way to address their own part in reducing carbon emissions is to reduce their own travel.“In talking about the environment and sustainability and CO2 emissions, it’s become more than just a sort of a casual discussion about saving the world,” Krings said. “It’s turned into a real initiative.”And underpinning these changes, said Brandon Strauss, co-founder and partner of business travel consultancy KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions, is a demographic change to the workforce that lends itself to these types of discussions. “You now have more Millennials who are in leadership and senior leadership positions who have different work habits, consume products and behave differently than Gen X-ers,” Strauss said. “So you’ve got this confluence of changing demographics who resist the technologies and processes that they don’t think are efficient. … perhaps, not as efficient as new technologies, as shared economy that this generation genuinely does think about what is best, what is the most efficient, what is the best thing for the company.“And now you’ve got Covid that shut everyone down and made everyone think, ‘You know what? Maybe there’s a better way.’ ”Don’t AlienateIt might be tempting to simply remind travel-reluctant employees, especially those in sales or other customer-facing roles, that travel is part of their professional responsibilities and they should treat it as such. But that’s a bad idea. Companies of all sizes found difficulties in finding and retaining employees, and keeping productive employees content will be a key challenge.“Because getting access to good talent is so important to so many businesses in so many industries, there’s going to be a pretty high tolerance for [employees who say] they’re not comfortable taking that trip,” said CWT managing director of global customer management Nick Vournakis. “I think you’ll see a fair amount of flexibility.”Many of these employees are aware that some companies already have become quite permissive in terms of travel and other workplace policies, Advito’s Ellis said.“The demographics of the workforce today play a huge factor, but everybody sees Google, and everybody sees tech companies in the Bay Area,” she said. “They’re competing for those resources, so how can we keep up with the Joneses? They’re setting a precedent on work-life balance and finding that center for their workforce.” A Formality?Managing these traveler preferences, though, could offer a level of complexity. Milenthal said his company hasn’t drafted any formal policy about travel reluctance and is handling it as situations arise. “It’s case by case,” he said, noting that reluctance could ease as vaccination mandates proliferate. “Once that becomes practice, then the comfort level is going to rise considerably among our clients, stakeholders and employees that they’re in a healthy situation in a meeting. I would think by the second quarter of next year that it will be a little more policy-oriented.”Whether to codify any formal language surrounding travel reluctance in policy might be a better question for a human resources department, suggested Partnership Travel Consulting founder and CEO Andy Menkes, but information could be included in an employee profile about their travel preferences. “If a certain segment of the employee base for personal reasons isn’t ready to travel at this point in time … there’s a fair amount of potential substitution” via remote conferencing that a company should support, Menkes said. Ellis also said she didn’t consider it likely that companies would develop policy specifically to address this preference, in part due to an overall rethink about the role of a travel policy. “I feel like we were in a shift pre-Covid, where a lot of companies were getting away from true mandated policies and moving toward guidelines,” she said. “Act like an owner, it’s your responsibility to make the right choices. I feel like that shift was already happening and this pushed us over.” Still, the lack of a policy governing instances when travel could be declined could bring trouble of its own. A world in which middle managers judge their employees’ reluctance case by case raises the specters of unequal treatment and inconsistent decision-making. While that may be an unavoidable cost, it shouldn’t be dismissed, either. “Corporates already have a tool in their toolkits to manage that, and it has to do with performance,” Vournakis said, “The questions corporates will have to ask themselves is: Does having an employee not travel affect their ability to perform their duties in the way we expect? But if it causes a performance issue, it will be managed as a performance issue.”Vournakis suggested that willingness to travel in the future could be a larger part of employee recruitment, although that’s likely more of an HR management issue than a travel management concern.“Maybe an individual’s willingness to be on the road is an element that gets tested in more depth in the interview process,” he said. “Maybe not in the medium term, but in the longer term there could be some real concerns to manage.”In the interim, companies likely will have to wait and see. Has Covid-19 opened the door to a new era of travel reluctance, fueled by younger employees and tolerated by senior executives? It’s unclear, but Strauss suggested the notion of travel policy as a strict compliance tool may be more of a relic than a prologue. “I think to some degree, it’s going to be about how companies adapt to all the changes that we’re seeing in the industry and think strategically about who their travelers are, what their needs are and what they have to do in terms of retaining talent,” Strauss said. “So I don’t think it becomes a matter of, ‘Well, given all of this, how do I put the clamps down?’ I think it’s, ‘Given all of this, how do I take the resources that are in the marketplace and make them as efficient as I can for my organization?’ ”Some of those resources are likely not to be travel solutions, but travel managers should consider how the alternatives can be integrated into the travel environment—at least philosophically. There are tools on the market today that can help would-be travelers weigh their business priorities, and if travel isn’t the answer, the travel platform should be ready to enable a non-travel experience by promoting the best tools for the job.