In a business culture obsessed with more revenue and lower costs, we can fall into the trap of believing that more savings are always better than less. However, there’s such a thing as spending too little on business travel.
Road warriors know that travel is mentally and physically exhausting. When a college kid says, “I’d really love to have a job where I travel all the time,” the seasoned road warrior always has words of caution: “Yeah, wait until you do it every week.” We know it’s not a vacation. Distance from family, friends, and the comforts of home takes a toll.
If you’re an HR executive, a travel manager, or CFO, your decisions can have a huge impact on the culture of travel at your organization and how employees perceive it. In my work at Rocketrip, I help companies manage travel and expense (T&E) by giving employees an incentive to save. I’m well aware of the tension that an imperfect travel policy can cause. This is why I think that saving should never be accomplished at the expense of employee well-being and safety. Comfort is not mutually exclusive with controlling costs.
To escape the trap of over-saving, I recommend structuring your travel policy around five principles that will maximize comfort, prevent employee churn, and still lower your costs dramatically:
1. Give employees control
Businesspeople who take several trips per month are creatures of habit; they know what works best for them. It’s counterproductive to mandate that employees travel in a certain way. Yes, there are reasons why a company might restrict certain airlines and hotels (e.g., negotiated rates, thresholds a company has to reach to keep them, etc.). But if those concerns don’t apply to you, why restrict the airlines on which employees can fly or hotels they can stay at? In the best case scenario, what does that accomplish?
It makes more sense to create guidelines that are flexible yet clear. “No business class on domestic flights” is a clear policy that still gives employees the choice to pick an airline where coach has Wi-Fi, movie screens, more foot space, or whatever amenities they prefer. Given the freedom to make their own travel arrangements, employees will respect your guidelines.
2. Prevent Burnout
Frequent business travel can lead to burnout. Life on the road compounds the usual stresses of a job. Jet lag, cramped plane cabins, and bad food take a toll on health, happiness, and productivity. Monitor how often employees are traveling and encourage them to take breaks whenever possible.
Sometimes, heavy travel schedules emerge from perceived expectations, rather than a company’s actual needs. Some conversations don’t have to happen in person. Phone calls, GoToMeeting, and Skype are often the better options.
3. Let Employees Mix Business and Leisure
A mix of business and leisure travel, often called “bleisure” travel, is when employees extend a work trip into a vacation. Normally, a New York businessperson might depart for San Francisco on Tuesday and return Friday to catch the weekend at home. Why not stay through Sunday to eat some great S.F. food, visit the Wine Country, or just wander the city?
Instead of feeling like a burden, a bleisure trip becomes something to look forward to. Bleisure travel can actually cost the company less, because employees break from the usual business travel schedule and thereby avoid peak prices.
4. Don’t Make Employees Guess
When any policy is vague, employees worry that they’re going to run afoul of the rules. Consider the “unlimited” vacation policy: it makes employees afraid to take time off. They have no idea what the upper limit is, so they come to play it conservatively or match the behavior of their manager (who might be mimicking the CEO, who happens to be a workaholic, etc.).
While a “no rules” travel policy sounds liberating, it, too, leads to anxiety and confusion. Is this hotel too pricey? Can I expense this dinner at such a nice restaurant? Will I get chewed out if I take the expensive afternoon flight instead of the cheap red-eye? There’s always a set of expectations, whether they’re articulated or not.
5. Don’t Punish Overspending — Reward Saving Instead
Even if your company enforces 100 percent compliance with the travel policy, employees will spend near the upper limit of their allowances. Why not, right? Employees feel entitled to whatever fits in the budget.
The potential savings are much greater when you give travelers an incentive to make cost-effective decisions. If, for example, employees earn a portion of savings when they beat their budgets, saving becomes pretty appealing. They don’t have to save; they won’t get in trouble for maxing out the budget. However, earning $150 per trip is pretty darn good if you travel twice per month ($150 x 24 = $3,600).
Save With Empathy
Travel managers and CFOs get kudos for cutting travel costs, but there’s a point beyond which more savings lead to more burnout, churn, and resentment. Set up your travel policy and incentives such that saving is appealing, but employees can still choose the comforts that matter to them. One employee might stay with friends instead of at a hotel and opt for an “economy plus” cabin. Another might choose the cheapest flight but pick a nicer hotel with a fitness center. Make savings a choice, not a burden, to help employees make the best of their time on the road.